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Shining the light on rural women’s mental health

Date: July 22, 2020
Author: Aimée Makeham, RAMHP Coordinator

Think of the words ‘rural’, ‘farmer’, or ‘agriculture’. Now close your eyes and imagine a person who lives or works in rural communities or agriculture or is a farmer. I can almost guarantee the person behind your closed eyes is a male. Statistically, you’re not wrong, it was only in 1994 that the law was changed to allow women to legally claim to be ‘farmers’1 and census data from 2016 indicated that women only made up 32% of the Australian agricultural workforce2. While one third of all ‘farmers’ in Australia are female, there seems to be such a focus on rural male mental health that we tend to forget about the women living rurally and the challenges they may incur, regardless of whether their registered employment is as a ‘farmer’ or not.

We all know that males in Australia are more likely to die by suicide than females, yet we tend to forget that women have significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation, suicide plans and attempts than males3. A review of literature by Daghagh Yazd, Wheeler and Zuo (2019) found that whilst farm women usually engaged in similar farm roles to males, mental health literature focuses primarily on male farmers. They also found that female farmers tended to experience more psychological distress than males farmers, in part due to their combination of roles within the business (farm management/labour), household duties and the responsibility of child rearing. Other factors that play a role in increased emotional distress includes increased work hours for females, pesticide exposure, economic hardship and worrying about finances4, 5. And, while a lot of these aren’t necessarily only ‘female problems’, or even ‘farmer’s problems’, they are issues a lot of country women can relate to.

Anecdotally, we know that women are more likely to talk about their partner’s health than their own, and the research shows this as well5. Yet, we often hear the phrases like ‘women talk’ and therefore, they have outlets for their emotional distress. ‘Men don’t talk’ which means we need to focus our attention on creating healthy, safe spaces for letting our feelings out – don’t get me wrong, we do need to create these spaces, but when the research indicates that women will talk about their partners before they talk about themselves and shows higher rates of emotional and psychological distress in females, it begs the questions ‘are we focusing enough on women’s mental health?’.

I have a controversial opinion. I don’t think female farmers or rural females are inspiring. Instead, they are the hard working and underappreciated glue that holds our small communities together. Country women work the land or the sea like any male farmer does. They might hold other forms of employment and they might be raising the kids of our future. They bake the cakes to be sold at fundraisers, they volunteer to ensure that our communities keep on keeping on. So, maybe it’s time we shone the light on the mental health status of rural females as well as rural males. Because without the ladies, our agricultural and rural communities would have some very large shoes to fill.



The views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the CRRMH or RAMHP.

One response to “Shining the light on rural women’s mental health”

  1. JA says:

    Thanks for this article. I’m a farming mother who went in search of some info on the topic of “the mental health of mothers in horticulture/vegetable farming”. An aspect I cannot find any information on – though I am certain exists – is what I call FWG: Farmer’s Wife Grief. For farms of a certain size and at a certain point in farm’s business cycle, the farming woman has little choice but to work ridiculous hours on-farm often without access to childcare while children are young – add to this the various other community commitments etc outlined in the article and (in my case) children who do not sleep.

    It is no secret that once some women become mothers, a sense of identity loss can follow. For the farming woman, this can be magnified. While some women have the opportunity to work off-farm, the reality for others is that they have little choice but to sacrifice their careers (or career prospects) for the benefit of their farms and families. In my case (and in the case of some neighbours), this sacrifice is a conscious decision. Twenty years was my estimate: the amount of time I was willing to put in before pursuing something for myself. I grew up in vegetable farming. I knew what I was getting into. Or so I thought.

    What I hadn’t anticipated was the nature of the off-season. For a month or two of the year, the pace slows a little – it allows headspace for dreams. And you get to counting. “How many years is it that I have left?” But you’re not committed to that 20-year promise, no. You can leave any time (say ten years in) – to get a job. But you do the sums, and it’s not a career, and the kids and the farm will suffer (depending upon the size and nature of your farm). And so, after all that thinking, you are called upon to make that same dream/career sacrifice again. And you make it. You sacrifice your dream year after year, but despite all your practise the loss doesn’t lessen. A grief ever-present on your shoulder when you look for it: one that is hungriest in winter.

    The reader may think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. FWG is very real. At least it is for me and others within my circle – usually women who have attained higher levels of education. Of all the things we talk about however, if anything is taboo; if anything threatens to unravel us: FWG is it. And yet for the life of me – I cannot find any research on this topic. I will continue looking. In the event I cannot find anything, all I need do is wait another eight years by my calculations…

    I just hope all our dreams don’t wear with our wits and fingers.

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