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Drought, global warming or rural adversity?

Date: September 16, 2019
Author: CRRMH Director Professor David Perkins

On September 3 the following question was asked in the NSW Government Senate Estimates meeting: Can you talk about what you consider to be the most pressing mental health impact of climate change both now and in the future and what the Government is doing to address this?

There are a variety of views about the nature of climate change and the extent to which weather events represent as the cycle of wet and dry years or something more sinister.  In 2007 at the height of the Millennium Drought, the NSW Government established a Drought Mental Health Program with rurally-based workers whose job was to identify and help rural residents, particularly those working in agriculture, to cope with the challenges of an extended drought and to find help where needed.  This program is still going but with a new name.  At the end of the Millennium Drought in about 2010, while the rains returned, the problems for rural residents did not magically disappear.  Several years without an income is not remedied by a good seasons’ rain.  Debts have to be paid and new crops sown, destocking of animals has to be followed by new investment in stock.

Additionally, it became clear that drought is not the only challenge faced by rural people.  Bushfires and floods are “rapid-onset” disasters with devastating impacts.  These disasters may affect the same people and there will be broader impacts in community businesses, schools and social groups and other rural settings.  This realisation led to a new name, the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program (RAMHP).

Of course, rural communities across NSW are varied.  Coastal communities have floods and inland communities have drought or fires at the same time.  The question was how could the Centre for Rural and Remote Health design and manage a program to address the impacts of a wide range of rural adversities on a wide variety of rural communities?

Firstly, we had to consult with our frontline RAMHP Coordinators and agree on the most important needs and the best ways of addressing them.  This resulted in the identification of four key activities: linking people to services, training community members, partnering with the other organisations who provide services in rural communities, and providing information about protecting one’s mental health in adversity.

These activities are needed in each NSW rural community but in different mixtures and doses.  The research paper  tells the story about how it was possible to redesign the program to provide the most appropriate services for local needs within a coherent framework that complements rather than duplicates other services.

It is unusual for unconventional rural mental health programs to persist over time and failure to adapt usually results in extinction.  Collaborative planning combined with smart management can enable a responsive program in which local needs are met and government priorities achieved.

In response to the Senator’s question: (The RAMHP program is) “not targeting individuals who have actually got mental health conditions, but finding how to make the community more supportive and able to withstand these sorts of events. That is the focus of some of that investment and where that model has been so important.”

Click here to read the paper: Reorientation of the Rural Adversity Mental Health Program: the value of a program logic model  published on September 4 in Rural and Remote Health.


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