Living in regional Australia can be difficult. There’s the physical dangers from road accidents and injuries from farm work and heavy industrial work but the mental health risks are just as dangerous. The state of mental health in rural Australian men has been described as a crisis for some time now. Why is that, and what can be done to change it?
Why Rural Life Contributes to Poor Mental Health for Men
Country areas have plenty of fresh air and wide open spaces but there are many factors that increase the mental health risks for the men who live there.
Country living can be isolated. Geographically, the distances between towns and even neighbours can be vast. This can make it hard to maintain a large network of extended family and friends to catch up with each week. Distance makes it difficult to enjoy the company of others on weekends. Maintaining strong social connections is vital for good mental health so isolation and loneliness are serious problems.
Finding a partner can also be difficult for young men in the country. Girls who grow up in the country often leave home after high school to move to the city or a larger regional town where job prospects are better and there is the opportunity to attend university. Men are more likely to stay on the family farm or in the family business to help run it and take over when mum and dad retire.
In many regional communities, there is an imbalance in the number of young males to females so some men are left without a partner.
It’s not just men who live in regional centres suffering from mental health issues. Fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) mining workers who leave their families in the city for weeks at a time are just as lonely and at risk. Some FIFO workers report feeling trapped in a life they hate because they can’t give up the big paycheck to take up city-based work. The rate of relationship breakdown is higher amongst FIFO families which can be the start of mental health problems.
The WA Government began a discussion paper in 2014 on FIFO mental health. It found anxiety disorders are the most common type of male mental disorder and rates of depression peak in the 25 – 44 year age group – the same ages as the vast majority of FIFO workers.
Many farming communities are asset rich and cash poor. In times of drought, farmers struggle with financial hardship to keep the farm going. Feeling unable to control their own destiny can have a big impact on farmers’ mental health.
Statistically, people living in rural and remote areas have lower incomes and lower levels of education. This means they can struggle afford to afford essential services like health care. Unemployment rates in rural regions are also much higher than in the cities, resulting in many living in poverty or just above the poverty line. Lack of work and financial security can be extremely stressful, leading to mental health problems.
Drug and Alcohol Problems
In many areas, regional people don’t have many entertainment options and, combined with isolation and stress, many young people turn to drugs and alcohol. The National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) in 2013 showed illicit drug use varied amongst regions. People living in remote or very remote areas are twice as likely to have used methamphetamine or amphetamines than those in major cities. One in three methamphetamine users experience serious mental health problems. Rates of cannabis use and pharmaceuticals not for medical purposes are also higher in remote and very remote areas.
Health Services in Rural Australia
Small populations mean many regional communities don’t have a family doctor nearby. People often need to travel considerable distances and put up with long waiting periods to see a doctor. Unless they have a serious physical injury, young men are unlikely to visit a GP.
The lack of country health professionals means country dwellers are far more likely to die of preventable diseases than their city cousins. Some deaths can be attributed to a lack of treatment options for mental health, drug and alcohol addiction.
In late 2018, the ABC reported on the need for more doctors in rural Victoria. The northern part of the state had over 60 vacancies for GPs, the Gippsland needed 30 and in Western Victoria there was a need for 45. The shortage of doctors often results in rural residents paying hefty medical bills for emergency or GP visits that are free in the city.
With a lack of GPs to diagnose mental health problems and poor access to treatment, suicide rates are, tragically, higher than in the cities. The Federal Government’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2017 reported there the rate of suicide in remote and very remote areas is 170% higher than in major cities.
PeopleSense by Altius are trying to extend services to regional areas by offering telehealth counselling sessions to those eligible under our EAP programs, or via Medicare Mental Health Care plans.
Initiatives for Rural Mental Health
Some help is available for people in rural areas who are struggling with their mental health, although much more needs to be done.
A not-for-profit organisation, Rural and Remote Mental Health, provides three programs for tackling mental health problems in regional Australia. Rural Minds for those people living and working in agricultural areas, Resource Minds for rural mining and construction workers and Deadly Thinking for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. The programs are about mental health education, awareness, prevention
A concerted effort is needed by the government, health sector and not for profit sectors to provide solutions for the mental health crisis in Australia.
If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s mental health, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or PeopleSense by Altius on 1300 307 912 or (08) 9388 9000, or contact us online.