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Australian Drought Drives Farmer Suicides

Australian Farmers Commit Suicides as Hope Evaporates, Oct. 20, 2006

SYDNEY - One Australian farmer commits suicide every four days, defeated by the country's worst drought in 100 years which has left them with dust-bowl paddocks and a mountain of debt, says a national mental health body.

As drought rolls into a sixth year, stoic farmers are reduced to tears under the stress of trying to produce a crop and hold onto land sometimes farmed by the same family for generations.

"One male farmer every four days is committing suicide," Jeff Kennett, chairman of beyondblue, said on Thursday.

"My fear is that when under prolonged stress and when they see their assets totally denuded of value, that we will see an increase (in suicides)," Kennett told local radio.

The rate among male farmers and farm workers is more than twice the national average, the NSW Farmers Association says.

The figure is all the more worrying because only about 10 percent of Australia's 20 million population live in rural areas and the number has been declining for years as the rural economy struggles. The vast majority of Australians live in cities.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics suicide report says 2,098 Australians took their lives in 2004.

Crop losses stretch across the country, 92 percent of economically dominant New South Wales state is in drought, and farmers have started off-loading stock before the hot, dry summer when they would be forced to buy feed and water.

With an El Nino weather pattern, which will bring more dry weather and soaring temperatures, now on the horizon and little prospect of rain until early in 2007, rural hope is evaporating like water in Australia's mud-cracked dams and rivers.

Farmers' wives calling talk-back radio in the city describe their husbands' depression at trudging out into their dry paddocks, day after day, knowing they are losing money.

Prime Minister John Howard has announced an A$350 million (US$263 million) aid package, but Kennett says farmers also need help coping with the depression and stress of years of drought.


A team of 60 psychologists should be sent out for the next six months "to help address the anxiety, stress, depression being faced by many farmers", particularly men, said Kennett.

Australia's farmers are typically tough, resilient and resourceful -- qualities that have enabled generations of country families to tough it out in hard times of drought and bushfires.

But these same qualities also prevent many from seeking help, particularly for depression, because they are worried that asking for help could be seen as weak or shameful.

Rural counsellor Liz Tomlinson-Reynolds said she receives up to 12 calls a day from depressed farmers.

"They're actually breaking into tears and you know, obviously, terribly, terribly distressed and that's over the phone. The ones that I see personally are no more stoic," Tomlinson-Reynolds told radio from northwest New South Wales.

More than 300,000 rural Australians experience depression each year, says beyondblue, but only a small number seek help.

A beyondblue study found several factors contributed to rural stress, such as isolation, drought-induced financial difficulties, stock loss, pressure of decision-making and the constant mental and physical demands of farming.

But rural communities are the least well-equipped to deal with mental health problems, with limited access to counselling, said the New South Wales Farmers Association.

"There are other facets of severe drought that are unable to be measured in production or dollar terms," the association said in a discussion paper on the drought released on Thursday.

"These are the social ramifications testing not only the farmers but all people on the frontline of drought," it said.

"Depression, isolation, alcohol abuse, family breakdown and suicide rates in regional and farming communities are all exacerbated in time of drought." (US$1 = A$1.33)