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Drought hits the mental health of young people harder, researchers say, but it's not all doom and gloom

By Michael Condon, Monday August 6, 2018 - 15:41 EST
Audience submitted image
This rain gauge is for sale as it hasn't been needed for a long time. - Audience submitted

Isolation and the ravages of long-running droughts are contributing to psychological distress among farmers under 35, researchers say.

Researchers led by Emma Austin from the Centre for Water, Climate and Land at the University of Newcastle, found that drought-related stress was contributing to psychological distress among younger farmers.

"This stress included worry about the impacts of drought on themselves and on their families and communities," Ms Austin said.

The study, which focussed on droughts from 2007 to 2013 and was published last week by the Medical Journal of Australia, found that stress was more acute in younger people.

It found that the more isolated the farmer was, the more vulnerable that person was to the stress of drought and associated financial difficulties.

Ms Austin said doctors were ideally placed to provide more support to those in need.

"Educating general practitioners about drought and stress in farming communities, as well as about practical approaches to supporting farmer health and safety, is critical," she said.

"It has been reported that unemployed young people in rural and remote NSW were 12 times as likely to experience distress as employed people of the same age."

Rain gauge for sale

Many young farmers are putting in place a range of strategies to combat the drought-induced blues.

Bunnan farmer Kelly Wicks said having a sense of humour was what was helping her cope with the stresses of the drought.

This included putting her rain gauge up for sale.

"I honestly couldn't even remember when we had rain in the gauge," Ms Wicks said.

"I've actually got it open for offers and so far there's been a good response, everyone's got a laugh out of it."

Messages of support and interest in the rain gauge have come from far and wide.

"I've had some people from Victoria ring me up and say 'it's raining down here' and in Western Australia [people are] saying 'it's raining over here, we're praying to send it over to you'."

Young farmers diversify

But not all young farmers are pessimistic about the future and life beyond the drought.

Joey Fleming, who works on his family's farm at Walgett, has added another string to his bow, training in metalwork and fabrication in an effort to diversify and maintain resilience.

He runs his metalwork operation in conjunction with the family farming operation, a mixed enterprise that has been in the family for generations.

He said the business was a good way to keep an income coming in and also kept him busy, keeping his spirits up in a very tough season.

"I have been building drought feeders out of shipping containers," he said.

"It's an idea that my mate Justin and I have been talking about for a while, and now is a good time to be looking at new feeding options."

His father Dave Fleming diversified into farming and irrigation after the wool crash, during another dry season, as a way to drought-proof his property.

"We are in the process of succession planning at the moment," Mr Fleming said.

"It's nice to think that all the kids are keen to carry on the tradition here, but you do worry whether you are passing on an asset or a big headache.

Justin O'Brien and his brother Sam are busy feeding sheep in their feedlot on the other side of Walgett, getting ewes ready to sell.

"We would normally hang onto these ewes," he said.

"But we can't afford to feed them through to lambing, so we're feeding them up to sell."

Sam O'Brien said the season has been "character forming".

"I went to Marcus Oldham [College] and I understand the bookwork, it's just question of putting it in place," he said.

"I like doing the numbers, I like to know exactly where we stand, how much you have and how much you don't have.

"I won't say I like paying the bills, but you have to give to get."

He said the feedlot had made it much easier to manage sheep in a dry time.

The brothers had managed to fine tune their knowledge of sheep nutrition through recent dry times.

Mr O'Brien said there had only been about "six months of good seasonal conditions" in the past seven years.

"You hear the older generations talk about how bad things were in the sixties or seventies, and then they improved.

"So I'm hoping that I'm getting a tough start, that I'm learning first-hand how to be resilient."

With additional reporting by Sally Bryant, Mike Pritchard and Cecelia Connell.


© ABC 2018

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