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, The Hon. Mr 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.
“Suicide rates in rural and remote areas of
are significantly higher than the national average and very remote regions have suicide rates more than double that of major capital cities.” [Source: www.livingisforeveryone.com.au ] 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. Australia
So why is the MDBP 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
. 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. [Further information can be obtained from the Australian Farm Institute Research Report: Essential Services in Urban and Regional Australia - a Quantitative Comparison ] Australia
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 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
is significantly higher to that of our metropolitan areas. Australia
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”. [Source: CORES | Community Response to Eliminating Suicide ] 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 .) [Video: Sheffield's Shield - Landline - ABC] Queensland
“Rural communities have also been affected by the perceived devaluing (by metropolitan communities and governments) of rural
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.” [Source: www.nrha.ruralhealth.org.au ] 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? Australia
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
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 aloneness, the contemplation of suicide for many will predictably follow. Australia
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.
Recommended for further reading: Suicide Prevention Australia - Position Statement "Responding to Suicide in Rural Australia"
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Beyondblue Info Line 1300 22 4636
1300 789 978 Australia
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1300 364 277 Australia
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