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Cruel New South Wales drought highlights mental health needs

Sally Bryant, Tuesday August 26, 2014 - 10:55 EST
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Jane Keir says drought survival is a mental challenge which needs specific support. - ABC

Walgett farmers are still kicking up dust despite the arrival of good rainfall for many parts of New South Wales.

The far north west of NSW is out of kilter with much of the rest of the state which is experiencing its best season in years.

The rain is predicted, the clouds arrive; and then they pass overhead and spread their joy and prosperity further east.

Farmers say it's hard to take when no-one is getting rain, but it's somehow even crueller when farmers a couple of hundred kilometres down the road are bogged in mud.



It's a tough, grinding sort of pressure and it brings people down and it's a situation Jane Keir has seen before.

She's seen it from the perspective of a farmer, as a nurse of 40 years experience and also as a shire councillor.

Ms Keir says she's worried that even with the huge amounts of money being spent on mental health services, people at the point of desperation are slipping through the cracks.

"I don't think any of the funding or the services are actually reaching the people on the land," she said.

"I don't believe the word is getting out to those people who are really suffering.

"I think it's becoming all too hard and I think we need to develop some new techniques."

Ms Keir says the first line of defence against despair, mental illness and self harm or suicide lies in simple communication.

"We have to look out for each other, talk to each other, watch each other for changes in behaviour," she said.

"If someone goes quiet, if they stop talking, if they stop going out, then there could well be a problem, and you need to speak with them."

Ms Keir says it is better to be accused of being a busy-body than to do nothing when you notice someone's behaviour change during hard times.

"I've been a nurse for forty years, and I've been accused of interfering, of dramatising, of all of those things.

"You just have to know that if you see someone acting out of character when they're under pressure in times like this, and you don't do something?

"Well, they may self-harm, or suicide and then you'll have to live with that."

Ms Keir says many people do not recognise the signs of depression when they are the patient; it doesn't even occur to them that there's a problem.

"They just don't see it in themselves when they're depressed, so you need to prompt them, to give them information about depression.

"If you print something from the internet, find an article in a magazine, just something like that as a cue."

Ms Keir says, as a farmer, that the family unit is an important support network as well.

"With our family; you must remain close, you have to chat," she said.

"Just to sit down over a meal at the end of the day and talk about the day, even if what's happened is not very good.

"We may be in drought, but people are still busy, they're still doing things."

Ms Keir says she's intensely thankful for her patch of lawn.

"I'm lucky to live on the river so I still have a lawn. But some people have lost entire gardens and that is devastating.

"If you can hang on to just one little pot-plant, then that can make all the difference."


- ABC

© ABC 2014

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