Enduring Drought Then Coping with Climate Change: Lived Experience and Local Resolve in Rural Mental Health

Article excerpt

Abstract

Climate change awareness has taken a dramatic turn in Australia, intensifying debate over the meaning of prolonged drought for rural futures, with critical implications for rural mental health. This paper is drawn from research on perceptions of Australian climate during a period of marked shift in public awareness of climate change (2004- 2007). It utilises oral histories gathered in dryland farm communities of the semiarid Victorian Mallee at the edge of the nation's commercial cropping zone - in particular, the stories of women's health workers - to highlight the interdependency of environmental, economic, political and mental health concerns in rural and remote communities. Focusing on lived experience, the paper explores the narratives through which people have apprehended drought and climate change - in discourse of endurance, uncertainty and putative adaptation - revealing advocacy and local resolve in the provision of rural mental health services, and, fundamentally, a paradigm of embodiment in rural social work.

Keywords

Drought, Climate change, Lived experience, Discourse, Rural endurance, Uncertainty

Received 9 April 2009 Accepted 11 September 2009

Introduction

I don't know how many times I've been pulled up in the supermarket . . .

And these people want to talk then and there in the corner of the frozen food section.

Women's health worker, Mallee (Anderson, 2004)

In the heart of the Victorian wheat belt, in a weatherboard cottage on a town's main street, sits a women's health centre. The state-funded outreach service is a book-end to a shopping strip replete with cochineal-coloured cafe signage declaring world famous country fare. In such company the health centre seems unassuming, even quaint: the logo on the cottage façade is of women smiling under the sun. Step inside, however, in through the flyscreen, and the subject matter is confronting, its implications extraordinary. There, draped along one wall and tacked to a wide ream of crimson cloth, are the promotional remnants of the centre's recent, high-profile event. Depicted is a story of how busloads of some 500 women from across the Mallee Track - a health service provision 'catchment' of 11,757 km2 in the northwest corner of Victoria; a semiarid region gripped by recurrent drought - travelled here the year previous, to a 'secret location' near town, to perform a raindance in the buff.

As sociologists have argued, in recent years health and social workers in rural and remote areas of Australia have had to develop innovative ways to reach people in need (Alston, 2005; Stehlik, 2005). As Alston (2005, p. 278) wrote, prolonged drought and rural restructuring have exacerbated problems in rural social work, with locally based counseling and support services in rural and remote communities deemed 'almost non-existent'. This much is evident in the case of the Mallee Track, where securing permanent government funding for a locally based, ongoing, emotional drought counselor has proved a bitter struggle. Here, at the semiarid edge of Australia's commercial cropping zone, drought is deemed 'a fact of life' (Anderson, 2008). In the Mallee, where drought has been narrated predominantly in terms of historical endurance, perceptions of climate change have elevated discourse of uncertainty over rural futures (Anderson, 2008). Critically, in remote communities dotted along the Track, health workers argue that such uncertainty has the potential to exacerbate mental health concerns in a region already experiencing high rates of stress, anxiety, depression, domestic violence, sexual assault and suicide (Anderson, 2004).

As this paper argues, for health workers, narratives of endurance and uncertainty have, in the face of imminent climate change, embellished a perception of local resolve. In turn, that perception gives primacy to local, community and familyoriented experience - perceived as gendered, too - in the formation of knowledge on drought, which lingers as expertise within community-based responses to climate change (Anderson, 2008). …