Over the past few years in Australia, rural and remote communities have had to navigate significant environmental challenges. From droughts to floods and bushfires – on top of the impacts from COVID-19 – these extreme events can have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of farmers and their families.
Data analysis of suicide deaths in Queensland found farming as an occupation is associated with a high rate of suicide. While comprehensive data on suicide rates among farmers across Australia is not readily available, a recent examination of national coronial data by the National Rural Health Alliance calculated the rate of farmer death by suicide as 18.3 per 100,000, which is 59 per cent higher than the rest of the community.
Farmers experience many of the same risk factors and social determinants of suicide as other Australians. Relationship breakdowns, unemployment, alcohol addiction and debt are all factors that, if proper support is not available, can lead people to crisis point. Yet we know farmers also experience unique stressors and risk factors due to their occupation, including working long hours and physical injury.
These risk factors mean farmers and their families need access to support services like counselling, health services and other systems to promote social inclusion. However, the majority of farmers live in remote communities where access to support systems is limited. We see an important role for technology to bridge some of these gaps. Digital technology, including telehealth, offers the opportunity for clinicians to consult with patients remotely. It also allows other service providers in the suicide prevention sector to connect with their clients regardless of their geographic distance.
How do we get there? Expanding access to digital service provision requires three key actions from government: expediting improvements to the National Broadband Network; investment in digital technology tools for health and mental health services; and rapid collaboration between federal, state and territory governments to make the tools available where they are most needed.
Residents in rural and remote areas already experience significant rates of social exclusion. The stressors on people living in these communities are now even more acute, with environmental extremes affecting employment, finances and their everyday lives.
We need dedicated supports to help farmers and their families navigate the personal impacts of natural disasters. These supports should have a particular focus on helping farmers navigate the profound impacts of natural disasters on their mental health and wellbeing.
Governments should also help farmers build resilience to future natural disasters and crises that may affect their businesses and personal wellbeing. One way to do this is through income diversification. Supporting farmers to explore alternatives for their farms during times of downturn – such as agritourism – will minimise the economic and personal toll enacted by future disasters.
Lastly, farmers need to feel connected with their peers. Linking in with others sharing the same experiences and challenges can be an important way of supporting people to feel more included and able to seek help when they need to. There needs to be a concerted effort to overcome the social distance experienced by farmers through a mechanism to create these peer connections, particularly during times of natural disaster. A peer support initiative for farmers would ideally be delivered digitally so that many people could benefit and via a platform facilitating two-way discussions. This initiative would need to be designed with farmers, so that it will work for them and their situations.
Suicide is a complex, multifactorial human behaviour with many varied risk factors. Australia needs a collaborative effort to address the suicide risk factors unique to farmers, enhance access to support services and provide specialist support during times of natural disaster.