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NEW research highlights need for targeted support for farmers affected by drought-related stress

Date: July 30, 2018
Author: Emma Austin, Research Lead, Centre for Water, Climate and Land, University of Newcastle

Targeted support needed for farmers affected by drought-related stress

Addressing the risks to public health posed by ongoing drought in NSW requires an understanding of the links between drought, drought-related stress and the factors that influence this stress. Farmers are particularly at risk of drought-related stress and targeted programs are needed to support farmers whose families and communities are impacted by drought.

Our study published in the Medical Journal of Australia used data from the Australian Rural Mental Health Study to investigate drought-related stress in 664 farmers in NSW during the Millennium Drought (1997-2010). The Australian Rural Mental Health Study extended beyond 2010 meaning both wet and dry conditions were captured which allowed consideration of impacts to farmers’ mental health under different climate conditions.

We measured general psychological distress and two types of drought-related stress – personal and community. Personal drought-related stress includes worries and concerns farmers had about themselves and their families, such as financial and business pressures, loss of contact with friends, more work to do and less time for family. Community drought-related stress includes worries and concerns about the community they live in, such as people leaving the area, losing businesses and services in town, not getting together as much, and changes in the countryside.

We also tested a range of socio-demographic and community factors to determine if they influenced the level of drought-related stress. For example these factors included: age, marital status, social support, sense of community, degree of remoteness, financial position, overall physical health, and satisfaction with relationships.

What we found

Farmers in the study belonged to one of three groups: (i) people who lived on a farm; (ii) people who worked on a farm; and (iii) people who both lived and worked on a farm. We found that farmers who both lived and worked on a farm reported more drought-related stress.

Farmers in the study were from inner and outer regional, remote and very remote NSW. The map shows the location of the farmers in the study according to postcode and remoteness class. Importantly, we found that both personal and community drought-related stress increased with remoteness.

Age was an important factor too. Farmers who were under 35 reported more personal and community drought-related stress.

Farmers who experienced financial hardship also experienced more drought-related stress.

In terms of drought, moderately dry conditions (defined as rainfall that is 30-60% below average) significantly increased community drought-related stress. The timing of the study meant that some data was collected during the spring of 2010 which was a very wet period for parts of NSW. This might explain the result that mild wet conditions (between 120-150% increase in average rainfall) reduced drought-stress but increased general psychological distress, as people had to cope with the impacts of flooding and the impacts of drought that persist even after the drought has broken.

Recommendations for support

Clarifying the links between drought, drought-related stress and the socio-demographic and community factors that influence this stress are essential. Understanding these relationships will create opportunities for promoting adaptation to future drought and increasing the resilience of rural communities to climate adversity. Specific actions include:

  • Reducing the stigma about mental health problems
  • Promoting opportunities for seeking help and advice early
  • Education for health services (including general practitioners) and non-medical agricultural support services who are often farmers’ first-port-of call
  • Transparent and consistent information about grants and loans available from the government
  • Better opportunities to maintain and develop social networks
  • Reasonable priced and reliable internet access.

For a full list of recommendations from the study please see the article in The Conversation.

To listen to a podcast about this research study, click here. 

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