Faux snow has been frosted onto the shop windows. Red and green tinsel has been strung across counters, cash-registers and bank-teller windows. Santa Claus swelters in a big red suit out on the street and in shopping-centres. Christmas is here again and, once again, we’re all swept up in a swirling maelstrom of eating, drinking, visiting and spending more than we have. It’s a time for family – a time of peace, relaxation, harmony and reflection. Well, it’s supposed to be anyway.
Lots of families in rural and regional Australia simply don’t have the option of shutting shop and stopping work over the Christmas/New Year period. If you work in agricultural or the resource sector in remote Australia, chances are you’ll be working and there will be limited, if any, time to spend with family and friends. And even if there is some time off to be had, that time is likely to be marred by financial stress and the anxiety that comes with it. It’s hard to get excited about a festive season that seems to be all about spending money when you don’t have any.
The situation in Western Queensland is especially critical. Over 60% of Queensland is currently drought-declared: the two previous wet seasons have failed and the long-range forecasts range between dismal and devastating. Many families have had zero income for over 18 months. In an attempt to stay on their land and remain viable, they have racked up debts in the millions of dollars. People are hand-feeding the few livestock that haven’t perished while the banks are circling like sharks. These are conditions are not exactly conducive to festive moods.
The past 15 years have been as challenging and difficult as any in living memory. We have just emerged from decade of drought during which just enough storm rain fell to bring – and then rip away -the occasional, small shred of hope. Immediately followed by two years in which we had 1-in-100 year floods – so much for statistics. Now it is another two years of failed wet seasons and drought.
Conservative modeling by AgForce Queensland shows that for every failed wet season, two consecutive years of at least average rainfall are required just to get back to the ‘pre drought position’. This ‘pre drought position’ is with respect to: stocking numbers and capacity, soil and pasture productivity, financial position and, critically, some sort of psychological stability.
This summer is shaping up to be the third consecutive ‘failed wet’. If the above formula holds, the people of Western Queensland will need close to a decade of ‘average years’, before they get back on their feet – that is, assuming they can hold on for another 12 months until next year’s wet season – assuming, of course, that it arrives.
These people are 15 years older now than when the decade of this drought first took hold. Unsurprisingly, their dreams, energy, ambition and drive have been battered into their cracked, dry country. Whatever financial reserves they had 15 years ago have been well and truly expended – just keeping food on the family table and as many of their stock alive as possible. If this is not enough, they are left with that awful, sinking feeling that they have been forgotten by their fellow Australians, people all who are huddle together at the temperate edges of this vast, unforgiving continent.
The mental health and social and emotional well-being of people who live and work in rural and remote Australia is critical – to them and, indeed, the rest of Australia. Perhaps because of the stigma that is still associated with mental ill-health, their understanding of mental health is limited. Where there is ignorance, there is fear. Knowledge around access to clinical mental health services is minimal or non-existent.
This is a recipe for disaster. The literature recognises that suicide prevalence, particularly male suicide, is at least twice as high in rural and regional areas as in urban areas. In these tight-knit rural communities, almost everyone knows, directly or indirectly, of someone who has either attempted or died by their own hand.
It’s a big problem but we can’t ignore it. Wherever we live in Australia we all have an obligation to at least make an effort.
If you’re one of these people who live and/or work in rural and regional Australia, it’s critical that you take some time over the festive season for yourself. Whether you really feel like it or not, it’s important to make contact with loved ones, friends and neighbours. Problems shared are problems well on the way to resolution. Australians are not, by nature, whingers, but there is consolation in knowing that you’re not on your own.
For those of us who live in the built-up areas, we can really help by taking some of our holiday in rural or regional Australia. The people are friendly and you will see some amazing landscapes, even if they are a bit brown and dry at the moment. Stay at the motel, have a drink or a meal at the pub, buy some petrol: your small contribution to the local economy will make a big difference -and it will be appreciated . You never know, you might even fall in love with wide, open spaces and the great, big, blue overarching skies of rural and remote Australia.
If you’re not able to travel to see friends and family in rural and regional areas, make sure you give them a phone call, send them a card or an email – or even a Facebook message. Take the time to get in touch; make it meaningful, make it count. Let them know you’re thinking of them and while you might not understand fully what they’re going through, they’ll be grateful that you at least recognise that it’s not easy for them. Thank them for their efforts and their gritty determination. These are the people who keep us so well fed and clothed wherever we live in this great country.
You never know, your contact may just save a life.
Tim Saal is Manager of Rural & Remote Programs at the Australasia Centre for Rural & Remote Mental Health.