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The drought is pushing rural women to breaking point, as doctors urge them to 'get help early'

By national rural and regional correspondent Dominique Schwartz, Tuesday October 22, 2019 - 09:03 EDT
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Robyn Caldwell, from remote western Queensland, said the drought had been 'overwhelming'. - ABC

Robyn Caldwell is carefully poking a pattern into her polymer clay beads.

She's making jewellery — presents for her grandchildren.

Around her a bunch of women, country women, are all doing the same thing.

"The little white pills help," she told the ABC, during one of the many workshops at the Channel Country Ladies Day in the tiny western Queensland town of Thargomindah.

"Every six months I go to the doctor and get some more.

"I wouldn't manage without them, I'd be a heap."

The drought has been relentless for the Caldwells, a grazing family from remote western Queensland.

For the past 18 months, the grazier and her family have been hand-feeding cattle — those that still remain.


"It is a hard slog," she said. "Gets monotonous, day in day out."

"I reckon that's what it is. Stress, yeah, can't see any end to it. It's overwhelming."

Karen Sherlock, the senior mental health clinician for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, said many country women felt there was "no end point in sight".

"It's really, really terrible," she said.

"They just feel like they're holding on forever and a day and there is a breaking point for everyone — we're seeing that happen."

It is one of the reasons why events like the Channel Country Ladies Day exist.

Over three days, 250 women left their far-flung stations, towns and properties to descend on the pop-up tent town in Thargomindah, 1,000 kilometres west of Brisbane.

At the temporary camp, they indulge in everything from barista coffees, hair appointments, dancing, craft and business workshops, inspirational speakers and retail therapy — buying products made for women in the bush, by women in the bush.

But mostly, they talk and laugh.

For Ms Caldwell, the annual event is permanently etched in her diary.

"Sometimes it's the only time I see some of my friends," she said.

Getting help early

Country people are often held up as being resilient — none more so than country women.

But that expectation rural Australians can weather any storm can often work against them, according to Rural Doctors Association of Australia president Adam Coltzau.

Dr Coltzau, who is also the local GP in the town of St George in western Queensland, said the notion of "resilience" could in fact be an obstacle to getting help.

"[They're] thinking that, 'I have to battle through this'," he said.

"Really, you're much better off talking to someone about it, getting some help early before we find people in crisis."

Dr Coltzau said doctors in towns across drought-affected Australia were seeing, "women coming in and seeking help for physical and mental ailments related to lots of stress linked to this drought".

The Australian Bureau of Statistics does not calculate a region-by-region breakdown of how many women were taking their own lives.

But figures show the number of suicides outside of the capital cities is growing.

In non-metropolitan NSW, 304 women died by suicide between 2009 and 2013.

That number rose to 407 in the five-year period to the end of 2018.

In regional Queensland, 488 females took their lives between 2014 and 2018, nearly 100 more than in the previous five-year period.

Across Australia, men account for three-quarters of the more than 3,000 people who took their own lives every year.

Karen Sherlock said she understood why men's mental health was a focus. But, she said, she'd like to see a broader focus that included women.

"There's a point at which it's OK to let the balls drop and fall apart," Ms Sherlock said.

"You won't fall apart for ever."


© ABC 2019

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