Australians are now more aware of the mental health impacts of droughts, but that doesn’t mean we are well equipped to handle them. So as the drought worsens across our nation's eastern board, how will our regional communities and farmers mentally prepare for what’s to come?
Maintaining good health and well-being is extremely difficult as extended droughts perpetuate relentless mental angst. Meanwhile, physical symptoms rise to the surface, but are too often ignored. Focus is on the bigger problem, not the self.
The problem is particularly acute for multi-generational farmers harbouring the knowledge that their forebears survived previous droughts. Losing the farm on your watch undoes the efforts of previous generations. You fail yourself, and you fail them.
Being responsible for the state of the land, the health of crops, trees, waterways and stock is a core challenge of farming and intertwined with a sense of identity. Emotional stress releases surges in cortisol and when this occurs on a protracted timescale, physical symptoms eventually ensue. The list of potential consequences includes heart attacks, strokes, cancers, even diabetes.
Both mental and physical health conditions can continue well beyond the end of the drought.
Financially, many never recover, putting relationships at risk and affecting younger generations. Interruptions to schooling of farming children can divert their life course onto a dramatically different pathway.
This drought is not an isolated incident, it is just one of an increasing pattern of climate disruption. As climate change continues to amplify extreme weather events, the well-being of communities will suffer time and time again.
But there are ways we can help our regional towns overcome hardship. Australia’s leading health groups – such as the Climate and Health Alliance – are on the frontline caring for those suffering from the drought.
They have developed a framework for a national strategy on climate, health and well-being for Australia and urge political uptake on the strategies outlined.
Individuals can help by visiting affected towns, buying locally-grown farm products and most importantly, doing your bit to reduce carbon emissions. The consequences of not acting on climate change are too great to be ignored and without urgency, droughts like this may become the new norm.
We must all do our bit to help regional communities in times of crisis. After all, the nation’s health and well-being is at stake.
Liz Hanna is the former president of the Climate and Health Alliance.