In drought-stricken Australia, farmers struggle with mental health issues, and learn to ask for help

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Nick James is a 32-year-old sheep farmer from Nathalia, Victoria. He says the drought has affected his mental health and he's chosen to talk about it in the hopes that others will get the help they need, as he has. (Ashley Ahearn/for WHYY)

Nick James is a 32-year-old sheep farmer from Nathalia, Victoria. He says the drought has affected his mental health and he's chosen to talk about it in the hopes that others will get the help they need, as he has. (Ashley Ahearn/for WHYY)

Nick James stands next to a dusty pasture on his sheep farm about two hours north of Melbourne. He’s 32, with a beard, broad shoulders, and a warm, quick laugh. But he says these days he’s had a hard time staying positive.

“You see it every day, mentally, in people, and myself. I’ve dealt with it before,” he said, looking out to his flock of sheep in the distance. “When you’re just that far in and you don’t know what you’re going to do, and you’ve just got to keep going. It’s pretty draining sort of stuff.”

A deep drought took hold in Australia in the late 1990s — people refer to it as the “millennium drought” — and things haven’t really gotten back to normal since then. At least, not in the southeastern part of the country. Over the past two decades, the region has seen significantly less rainfall than historic averages.

Sixty percent of the dairy farms here in the Murray-Goulburn basin have gone out of business, and water has become so expensive that some farmers have had to kill their animals because they can’t afford to keep them alive.

James had to cut back the size of his flock and change the way he manages his sheep. Back when water was affordable, he’d irrigate his fields and let his sheep out to graze freely. Now, he keeps them in a confined lot and feeds them hay — which also costs more than it used to.

The drought —  and all the stress that has come with it — has affected his mental health. A few years ago, James was in a really dark place. He and his wife, Georgie, were pouring everything into raising their kids and running the farm. But James was feeling a lot of pressure as the water disappeared and the debt piled up. He began drinking a lot and staying in bed for consecutive days in a row.

“I’m normally a pretty positive, upbeat fella, always looking forward,” James said. “I’d just lost my sting, I think. I’d had enough. I thought everyone was against me. That’s when I realized I’d hit rock bottom. I’d stopped being positive and [was] drinking a lot of alcohol and spending a lot of time in bed. I was just down and out.”

Farmers are a tough bunch, and used to figuring stuff out on their own. They don’t like to ask for help. But the drought has made many of them feel helpless and out of control — and that’s taking a toll on them.

Australia is no stranger to drought — it’s a part of life here — but things are feeling different now. Since the turn of the century, intense dry periods have stretched longer and come at more frequent intervals (the region is experiencing drought again now), punctuated by farm-wrecking floods. Just as farmers are getting their legs back under them financially, another extreme weather event sweeps through and sets them back again.

“I understand myself by what I do”

Climate change — in the form of radically variable weather, more severe droughts, higher prices on water and feed, and longer hours of work — has translated into more than a threat to the economic viability of farms in this part of the world. It presents a threat to the very identity of the people that farm here, and that can have harmful effects on mental health.

Much of southeastern Australia has experienced drought or drought-like conditions, punctuated by flooding, since the turn of the century. (Ashley Ahearn/for WHYY)

Anthony Hogan was part of a team that surveyed the social and economic impacts of the millennium drought on farmers across Australia. He is an honorary professor of sociology at Sydney University and has worked as a counselor and therapist over the years.

“Males in rural, remote Australia are twice as likely as city males to kill themselves,” Hogan said. “The leading cause of death in outback Australia is land-transport accidents. Which is code for: single-vehicle accidents. Line yourself up with a tree, with three or four cans of petrol in the back of the ute [pickup] with the lids off, and, as you’re about to hit the tree, throw the cigarette in the back.”

Securing a life insurance payout is, for some farmers, a final attempt at providing for their families and keeping their farms viable for future generations. “These are the kind of scenarios we talk about,” Hogan said. “And the figures are there, and they’re undeniable and they’re sustained.”

Research on Australian farmers, published in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” found a 15 percent increase in suicide among men between the ages of 30 and 49 during periods of drought.

Perhaps not unlike the way it is in the United States, Hogan said, Australians have a strong attachment to the concept of “the rural idol” — which might be compared to the Marlboro man of the American West. When Australia was a struggling penal colony, close to starvation, farmers were national heroes.

“In Australia, we have a long culture about the stoic farmer who’s inherited the family farm from generation to generation, maintains the farm, feeds the country, and hands on a good asset to the next generation,” he said.

But, Hogan explained, that identity — the rural idol, farmer as a hero — is under threat as fire, flood, drought, and rising feed and water costs make it harder for farmers to stay economically viable.

“As these shocks accumulate, you can’t see a future for yourself, but you have a responsibility. You are supposed to be able to manage all this. You are supposed to be able to hold yourself together. You are supposed to produce during tough times and hand on the legacy,” Hogan said.  It’s a convergence of factors that essentially amounts to “identity destabilization.”

No one is claiming that climate change or the millennium drought caused the rise in rural male suicides, but the correlation is worth noting, as agricultural communities around the world look ahead to more challenging and unpredictable weather conditions and the resultant economic instability.

At the very least, Hogan and others say, the rise in suicides drew attention to the issue of mental health — and the stigma that is often attached to confronting it — in rural communities.

Leading from within

Jenny O’Connell has silver hair and dark, warm eyes. She’s the kind of person who makes you want to tell her your whole life story as soon as you meet her, and people often do. O’Connell is a clinical social worker and practicing therapist who has lived in Shepparton, the “urban” center of the Murray-Goulburn dairy region, for 50 years. She raised her two daughters here. Her husband, Patrick, sold real estate and was active in the local Australian rules football, cricket, and theater clubs.

She and her family are very much a part of the community, and, over the years, she’s gained the trust of many farmers who have sought her out for counseling.

“Rural people won’t ask for help because they’re very proud and independent. In smaller communities, they don’t want to be identified as having issues and worry that people will know who they are and think of them as a failure.”

There is stigma attached to seeking help with mental illness in many communities. Farmers are not unique, O’Connell said, but they are perhaps more skeptical of receiving help from outsiders who do not understand their cultural values.

“Quite often, when there is some kind of catastrophic event, people come from outside, but the locals don’t accept them very well because they’re not local,” O’Connell said. “They’ll play the game, but they won’t trust, and they won’t buy in fully to the support that’s available.”

O’Connell and her husband started a program called Leading from Within, which was designed to bring people in their community together in small groups to provide trauma recovery and suicide-prevention support. She would hear about families or individuals who perhaps shared a common background or set of challenges, and would reach out to them to let them know about the program. Other participants would be referred to her by rural financial counselors, government employees who work with farmers to develop better business strategies and farm-management tactics. O’Connell would then put together small groups of four to six people, who would meet regularly over the course of a year or so.

In 2004, as the millennium drought was in full swing, the O’Connells tailored some of their programs for farmers who were struggling with drought and had experienced suicide in their community.

“We would run sessions and come away absolutely humbled. Absolutely in awe of the courage that people have shown to express this deepest stuff,” Jenny O’Connell said. “The women often lead. They will say things, and when they’re in a group together, we can check with the men and the men will slowly go, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ ” Jenny said that leading the groups with her husband helped create a more open dynamic.

“Patrick can talk about things he knows are common with men. He’ll say things like, ‘You know we’re pretty hopeless buggers, aren’t we? We always cover our feelings and pretend we don’t have them, but sometimes we don’t feel that way, do we?’ The guys will find that easier to relate to and often then start to share really deep stuff.”

O’Connell used her experience treating trauma victims to help farmers grapple with the emotional toll of the drought. She explained the way trauma works to her groups, walking them through the “fight-or-flight” response humans have in the face of a traumatic experience. She said for some, suicide can start to seem like the only way of trying to regulate or escape from an absolutely overwhelming emotional state experienced over a prolonged period of time, “where you’re so agitated you can’t stand it, or you’re completely overwhelmed with anxiety you can’t feel, can’t move.”

“If people learn other strategies for regulating their nervous systems, they don’t have to go there,” she said. “When people come for help, that’s part of what we teach them, the neuroscience of trauma and how to cope. So when they learn how to manage their own nervous systems, they can see that there is another option.”

‘What am I doing here? I’m bigger than this’

These past few years have been hard for Nick James. Water prices keep rising, and he’s had to borrow money to keep his sheep farm going while trying to adapt his farming practices for drier times ahead. There was a period, a few years ago, where it all seemed like too much to handle. That’s when James took to drinking and had a hard time getting out of bed.

He said it was his wife who helped him face his struggles with mental health.

“Georgie is pretty stubborn,” James said, chuckling. “She didn’t give me an option. She said, ‘We’re going to have to do something about this, you know?’ and we were lucky enough to get some help off Jenny [O’Connell]. It’s turned my life around. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

But those first trips into town to see Jenny were some of the hardest.

“It was hell. I think probably the worst thing of it is you think you’re a bit of a failure. You think, ‘What am I doing here? I’m bigger than this. I’m a grown man.’ But yeah, when you get yourself in the zone and you listen to what the experts have got to say and you get yourself right, it’s the best thing you can ever do for yourself.”

There’s still stigma attached to mental illness. No one in a small town wants people to see their pickup truck parked outside the therapist’s office. When James first started driving into Shepparton to see Jenny, he didn’t tell anyone about it.

“Now, I really don’t give a shit” he said, shrugging his broad shoulders. “To put it frank, I’d rather tell someone I’m going to see a counselor or therapist and what a world of good it’s doing me and hopefully that might change someone else’s mind that’s going through a hard time.”

He’s still worried about the drought — and he thinks about climate change often. What does it mean for his daughters, if they want to be farmers when they grow up? Is this the new normal? James wonders: What if the rain patterns never return to what they once were?

At least now, he feels more prepared, mentally, to face those challenges as they come.

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