OPINION: We need a new approach to better respond to rural adversity

Monday, 26 October 2020

By Professor David Perkins, Director of the University of Newcastle's Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health.

For rural people it feels as though life consists of one adverse event after another with no let-up or breathing space before the next catastrophe strikes.  Drought, fire, floods, pests, changes in commodity prices seem to challenge the foundations of rural living and we are seeing the impact in levels of distress and mental ill-health.  This rural adversity cycle is familiar to our friends across the world.  Just this morning I was talking with a colleague against a background of intense bushfires in Colorado, US.  But it’s not just rural adversity.  Rural people also face the normal challenges of life such as sickness, bereavement, losses by suicide, alongside injury, unemployment and business failure.  On top of this, while the levels of infections and number of deaths attributable to COVID 19 in rural Australia have been limited, the economic and social consequences of the lockdowns have been considerable.

It is clear that no-one in rural Australia is immune to this cycle of rural, personal and global adverse events and that it is not a question of isolated events that can be addressed by short term spending on help-lines, counsellors, coordinators, and mental health workers.

Our research, which was launched at the Australia and New Zealand Rural Mental Health Symposium, examines how this pattern of adverse events impacts on the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities causing psychological distress, mental ill-health, and a reduced ability of rural communities to adapt and recover.  We show how human, material and economic loss undermines wellbeing and a community’s ability to support its more vulnerable members.  This is accompanied by increased anxiety, depression, substance misuse, post traumatic symptoms and increased suicide risk.  All this reduces the ability to cope with the next adverse event.

In response, we need to recognise the extent of this challenge and move from short-term and sometimes overlapping responses that address single events to comprehensive and extended responses that  combine disaster response with psychological support to mitigate human losses, financial help for material losses, and investments in rural business and development community development.  In many places mental health services will need to be enhanced and mitigation undertaken to increase preparedness for future events.

We already spend considerable money in our response to rural adversity but we should ask whether this strengthens individuals, families and communities as such events become more common and more intense.  The evidence suggests a new approach is needed.

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The University of Newcastle acknowledges the traditional custodians of the lands within our footprint areas: Awabakal, Darkinjung, Biripai, Worimi, Wonnarua, and Eora Nations. We also pay respect to the wisdom of our Elders past and present.