As farmers continue to battle what some have described as the worst drought in living memory, the New South Wales Government has today announced a funding boost for mental health services.
Drought-affected communities across NSW will have access to 20 new farmgate counsellors and frontline mental health workers as part of a $6.3 million package.
The new mental health positions, which build on the existing Rural Adversity Mental Health Program, will be based in the Western, Hunter New England, Murrumbidgee, Nepean Blue Mountains, South Western Sydney and Illawarra Shoalhaven Local Health Districts.
Minister for Mental Health Tanya Davies said the funding would be rolled out over the next two years.
“We anticipate the Local Health Districts in those regions will begin recruiting immediately,” she said.
“In some cases, they will have staff that will be able to step across into these roles immediately, but we’re looking for this extra support to start as soon as possible.
“Our initial $6.3 million funding is for two years, then what we plan to do is assess the extent of the drought, the severity of it, and get feedback from our communities in terms of what they need.
“We’ll be prepared to reassess what needs to happen in two-years-time.”
Extra on-the-ground counselling services and more research
A key focus of the package is the provision of free ‘on farm’ counsellors to link people who may be struggling with their mental health into support services.
It will also provide for an additional five Rural Adversity Mental Health Program coordinators, to build on the existing 14 coordinators already based across NSW.
Ms Davies said the aim was to provide farming families with a flexible resource, that was easily accessible.
“We want to send these workers to them, where ever they may be — either on the farm, talking around machinery, out in the paddock or around the kitchen table,” she said.
Photo: Stock waiting for feed in a dry paddock near Tamworth. (ABC News: Jennifer Ingall)
The package also includes funding for a research study to investigate the type, duration, targeted population and distribution of mental health services in NSW, with a specific focus on drought.
The study is intended to map existing support services, as well as contribute to the development of new interventions across regional and remote areas.
Series of community events to boost awareness
In addition to farmgate counselling services, 10 local wellbeing events will be held across rural NSW.
The community days, managed by not-for-profit group the National Association for Loss and Grief, will be designed to increase engagement with local support services, and will include free mental and physical health check-ups.
The events are to be held in Dubbo, Yeoval, Narromine, Nyngan, Bourke, Coonamble, Walgett, Coonabarabran and Gilgandra.
Ms Davies said the activities would be scheduled over the next 12 months with more to follow.
Mental health advocates applaud initiative
The boost to drought support services has been welcomed by the mental health sector.
Gary Bentley, a counsellor with Rural Aid, said any extra funding would make a difference.
“There’s a lot of suffering at the moment, it’s been building for quite some time and the ramifications are going to continue in the farming community for years to come,” he said.
“We’ve yet to see the detail of it of course, and the devil is usually in the detail with any of these sort of announcements, but any sort of funding for a mental health initiative in the farming community is welcome because we are at a crisis point.
“It’s the face-to-face discussions and the face-to-face counselling that is the most effective, so again, any initiative in that direction is welcome.
“One rainfall doesn’t end the drought — the physical recovery will take a long time and certainly the psychological recovery will take even longer.”
Pauline Carrigan, a farmer in the NSW Upper Hunter region, founded the local not-for-profit organisation Where There’s a Will after her son Will Carrigan took his own life at the age of 24.
She said she hoped the services wouldn’t be withdrawn from rural communities when they were deemed no longer necessary.
“Everyone needs support sometime in their life and for rural NSW and rural Australia generally, we do not have support in place for when we need help with wellbeing,” she said.
“I find it reactionary … [that] they’ve waited until it’s become a crisis before they’ve recognised the need for this.
“While I applaud them sending in the 20 counsellors, can I ask, please, that they never leave again.
“I would encourage every farmer and farmers’ wives and children, even to go in as a family and speak with a counsellor.”