Trouble in the country

Farmers' wives at risk too.
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Men in remote areas are 2.6 times more likely to end their lives by suicide than those in metropolitan areas, according to a report by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare. And country women are at risk too. Shelby Garlick reports.

Nestled away on an 800-hectare farm near the banks of the Murray River, outside the small farming town of Barham, NSW, is an avocado farm taking Melbourne’s café scene by storm.

Katrina Myers, along with her husband and young family, lovingly tend to the same paddocks that four generations of Katrina’s family have cared for before them.

If you’ve been to Melbourne’s popular cafe Top Paddock, and sampled their famous bacon and eggs with mashed avocado, you’ve probably had one of her delicious ‘Barham avo’s’.

But getting her avocados from paddock to plate hasn’t been without its struggles for Katrina.

At a young age she lost her father to suicide. And to her, mental health is everything.

“His death has affected me throughout my life in various ways and probably more as an adult and as a mother than it did at the time,” she says.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss him and wonder what things would be like if he was here.”

Katrina’s story isn’t a stand-alone story and reflects the widespread problem of mental health in rural areas.

Men in remote areas are 2.6 times more likely to end their lives by suicide than those in metropolitan areas, according to a report by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare.

Recently dairy farmers were thrown into the spotlight after a battle erupted over the price of milk.

Most news reports discussed the financial ramifications of the price drop, but the focus then shifted towards the effect it was having on their mental health.

Dairy farmer Wayne Johnson, who was interviewed on Channel 10’s The Project, said on air: “The news really hit me when I finally caught up with my wife and she looked straight at me and said, ‘if it wasn’t for me and the children, she’d probably kill herself.’ ”

Katrina said: “People forget the huge strain on women who are supporting men who have depression and I would certainly like to see more support for women.

“The focus definitely tends to be on men but I feel there are many women who are coping with some form of mental illness, whether their own battles or from supporting their partners.”

Mental health among people from rural areas isn’t a new issue.

During the 1980’s and ‘90s a farmer died by suicide every four days, which amounted to 92 suicides per year, according to a 2002 report from the University of Sydney.

Dr Samara McPhedran, a senior research fellow at Griffith University, said farmer suicide rates have come down, but the issue hasn’t been studied enough for medical professionals to have a clear understanding.

“To effectively prevent farmer suicides it is vital to acknowledge the complex set of challenges farmers face,” says Dr McPhedran.

George Bender, a well-known anti-coal seam gas farmer in Queensland, died by suicide in October last year.

Bender’s suicide has been blamed by his family on his decade-long fight to keep Origin Energy off his 2000-acre farm.

Dr McPhedran says too often people assume there is a clear connection between natural disasters, drought and farmer suicide.

“There are many individual and contextual circumstances, both environmental and psychosocial stressors associated with farmer suicide,” says Dr McPhedran.

Prolonged drought, natural disasters, financial hardship, pricing of agricultural commodities and a shift away from rural industries, primary production policy changes and decreasing political representation can all be factors.

Studies have found farmers have a higher likelihood of experiencing social isolation due to long working hours and geographic remoteness.

Katrina had always wanted to get involved with advocating for mental health and for prevention and a holistic approach to treatment.

When she heard about The Ripple Effect project, she applied to be on the steering committee.

The Ripple Effect is an online intervention program designed to investigate what works to reduce the stigma among males from the farming community who have been affected by suicide.

The Ripple Effect has been developed by the National Centre for Farmer Health (NCFH), Deakin University, Victorian Farmers’ Federation, AgChatOz, Mental Health Fellowship North Queensland, Sandpit and Western District Health Service as part of Beyondblue’s STRIDE project and is funded with donations from the Movember Foundation.

“It’s a platform for people from farming communities to share their experience of suicide. The idea is, by sharing what helped you, you can help others,” says Katrina.

“For me it’s about helping make sure no more Dads die from this terrible illness by helping make sure the stigma is reduced so people seek help earlier.

“It’s also about the many flow-on effects that a project with this sort of awareness might bring for the wider community.”

As governments and society acknowledge the importance of mental health there has been a rise in programs targeted at men in rural areas.

Across rural towns Men’s Shed workshops are popping up and giving men a safe place to discuss any issues.

Men’s Sheds gives men from rural areas a safe environment where they can connect with friends and maintain an active body and mind in an atmosphere of old-fashioned mateship.

Harry Sambrooks, co-ordinator of the Kerang Men’s Shed, is employed by Kerang District Health to oversee its smooth running.

Kerang Men’s Shed has over 30 members and provides a place for men over the age of 55 to get out the house, meet new people and engage in projects that help the community.

“It gives them a chance to interact with guys who are maybe going through the same sort of stuff, whether its mental health or substance abuse problems,” says Sambrooks.

“Members can range from ex-farmers to men who have never touched a piece of wood before.

“It makes them feel good about themselves, being able to give back to the community and contribute to and finish projects.”

The men work on projects ranging from woodwork, to computing and help with school, rotary and other volunteer organisations.

“It’s often forgotten about but it’s good for their wives too. It gives them a break and gets their husbands out of the house,” he says.

Leader of the Victorian National’s Party, Peter Walsh, has opened more than 10 Men’s Sheds and is an avid supporter of the program.

“Most Aussie men have learnt from our culture that they don’t talk about feelings and emotions,” he says.

“It’s probably largely because of this many men are prone to suffer more from isolation, loneliness and depression,” he says.

When it comes to talking about mental health issues in rural areas, it’s easy to blame a lack of healthcare services in rural areas.

“Suicide is about far more than mental health, and preventing suicide takes much more than access to mental health services, says Dr McPhedran.

Contrary to what is assumed, studies into farmer suicide have found many did in fact have contact with healthcare professionals prior to taking their own lives.

Dr Phedran said access to support is important, however there are other factors such as the appropriateness of support given to farmers.

“For example, counsellors cannot fix a failing crop, and it may be the failing crop that is the source of a particular individual’s distress.”

“Also will a 60-year-old male farmer who has lived in one rural area for his whole life relate well with a 25-year-old female counsellor who has only just moved to that area?”

With experts predicting the possibility of a drought just around the corner for rural Victoria and New South Wales, looking out for your neighbour has never been so important.

Katrina says: “Go to the Doctor, have a conversation, just do something. Sometimes just knowing that someone cares enough to ask if they are OK can help.”

If you or someone you know is distressed by this story or needs support, help is available by calling Lifeline on 131 114 or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.