Alison Fairleigh writes: As debate rages in cities, rural communities, media outlets and through the vast networks of the twitterverse as to the economic and environmental costs of implementing the recently published Murray Darling Basin Plan, there is one factor that has remained unmentioned. The exception to this apparent hidden cost is the Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, who has spoken openly and defiantly about the detrimental effects the plan will have on social impacts, particularly mental health, and the risk of increased suicide resulting from loss of livelihood and/or threats to livelihood.

Rates of suicide in rural and remote Australia are significantly higher than the national average. The suicide rates of very remote regions is more than double that of major capital cities. According to research conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) men in regional and remote areas are 1.3 to 2.6 times more likely to end their life by suicide than their urban counterparts. These are alarming statistics.

So why is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan likely to result in increased suicides and adverse mental health? To answer this question we need to look at the factors contributing to the high incidents of completed suicides in rural and regional areas; particularly amongst the male population.

People in rural communities are extremely vulnerable to climatic factors and economic changes because incomes are, in general, lower than in urban Australia. Whether it is flood or drought or the high Australian dollar, all have a direct and significant impact on farming communities which can lead to individual financial hardship, unemployment and bankruptcy. This in turn can lead to depression, a sense of hopelessness, substance abuse or relationship conflict and/or breakdown — all of which are high risk factors attributing to suicide.

People in urban areas are equally at risk to suicide when affected by economic hardship, but there are additional issues impacting rural communities; de-population and the withdrawal of essential services being amongst the most significant. You can read further about this problem in the Australian Farm Institute research report titled Essential Services in Urban and Regional Australia — a Quantitative Comparison.

Mental illness has been described as the epidemic of modern times, with one in four Australians suffering.  In regional areas, access to mental health services in regional areas is considerably less than in major metropolitan centres.  The situation is further exacerbated by fewer GPs who form the ‘frontline’ in the treatment of mental illness.  When we combine the factors of a lack of GPs in rural areas and a high level of prevalent mental illness in the community, it is clear that the medical infrastructure is absent. Without the added support that mental health patients require, it is little surprise that the rate of suicide in regional Australia is significantly higher to that of our metropolitan areas.

The social stigma and shame attached to ‘falling on hard times’ and/or mental illness is another contributing factor to the high rate of suicide in rural areas.  Country people are resilient and self-sufficient. As such, they are less likely to ask for help, particularly men, because they see this as a sign of weakness or failure.  The very close’ nature of small rural communities tends to feed this phenomenon because everyone knows each others’ business.

Given the closeness of small communities, when someone does complete suicide, everyone is affected because they all know each other, bringing into play the ‘40 x rule‘ — “A person who has attempted suicide, or known a significant other who has completed suicide is 40 times more likely to attempt or attempt again.”

This is why one suicide in a rural community is usually followed by several more within a relatively short period of time. Examples include Kentish in Tasmania, Buloke in Victoria and the Burdekin in Queensland. Check out this Landline video on the issue.

As stated by the National Rural Health Authority: “Rural communities have also been affected by the perceived devaluing (by metropolitan communities and governments) of rural Australia as a contributor to the nation’s social and economic fabric. This has been exacerbated by international trade pressures and the declining profitability of core rural industries.”

Rural people are often represented poorly in Australia’s media, particularly by newspaper cartoonists, who portray farmers as gun-wielding, straw-chewing hicks. It should not be underestimated the impact this has on farmers who, for the most part, are engaged in cutting-edge science and technology to produce abundant, fresh and healthy food for all Australians. As skilled managers of their businesses and the environment, they should be the envy of all Australians. For example: The National Sustainable Farming Award and the Australian Farmer of the Year events award farmers for their ingenuity, use of innovation and sustainability on the farm .

Unfortunately, this is far from the case and reactions by people in urban centres to rural people who have spoken out about the impact of the MDBP have, in general, been hostile and disdainful.  These attitudes add to feelings of isolation and aloneness for many country people, ie: why bother and who cares?

Subsequently, when these risk factors combine with the relatively easy-access to potent means of ending life, (ie: firearms and chemicals) the results for rural Australia are devastating. Sadly, an inevitable outcome from the proposed MDBP will be the loss of lives to suicide as already fragile communities will experience further depopulation, the withdrawal of yet more services, lost livelihoods, the inability to sell houses/land/farms, bankruptcy and increases in mental illness.  When these stressors become persistent and consistent and are accompanied by loss and loneliness, the contemplation of suicide for many will predictably follow.

If the proposed basin plan goes through, it may be the human cost we are counting at the end of the day, not just the environmental and economic impacts that our media seem to portray. The MDBP affects individuals, families and entire communities. We need to protect and support our farmers and their futures, not kick their lives around like political footballs.

Alison Fairleigh works as a Business Development Officer for the Australian Agricultural College Corporation (AACC) and lives in the Burdekin in North Queensland.  Alison has attended training in Mental Health First Aid (including for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples) and is an advocate for Agriculture and Mental Health in rural Australia.  She is also a member of the Burdekin Community Association and Team Leader for CORES™ (Community Response to Eliminating Suicide).

Mental Health Help Lines:
Beyondblue Info Line 1300 22 4636
Mensline Australia 1300 789 978
Lifeline 13 11 14
Lifeline’s Info Line 1300 13 11 14
Relationships Australia 1300 364 277
Kids Help Line 1800 551 800

This is part of a Rooted series from different interested parties — farmers, lobby groups, environmentalists, etc — discussing their reactions to the guide of the draft Murray-Darling Basin Plan and the community consultations surrounding it, called Murray Murmurings. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email [email protected]

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