Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Regional Studies

Cut from 'Country': The Impact of Climate Change on the Mental Health of Aboriginal Pastoralists

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Regional Studies

Cut from 'Country': The Impact of Climate Change on the Mental Health of Aboriginal Pastoralists

Article excerpt

1. INTRODUCTION

This paper examines the impact of drought (defined as rainfall deficiencies and prolonged periods of above-average temperatures), not unlike the conditions predicted under climate change scenarios, on the mental health and wellbeing of Aboriginal residents in arid North West Queensland (hereafter referred to as NWQ) who are dependent on the pastoralism sector for their livelihood. While the focus is on the impact of the severe drought--as these were the conditions preceding and at the time of the 2013 study-the suspension of live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011, and general economic downturn had also adversely affected pastoral enterprises across NWQ. To provide a context to this study the paper will outline the following: the predominance of mental ill-health in rural and remote regions of Australia; second, attention is drawn to the particular vulnerability of residents of rural regions, followed by a synopsis of the actual changes in climate that have occurred, and those predicted for Australia. Fraser et al. (2002) mention a concern over the paucity of knowledge on the causal mechanisms between rural population change and mental health, this study provides minor insight into one such cause, namely the impact of a work downturn in the pastoralism industry.

The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health

In Australia, the rates of death are higher in rural and remote areas compared to metropolitan areas (Table 1), as are male suicides (Caldwell et al, 2004; Judd et al., 2005; Miller and Burns, 2008; Sartore et al., 2008). The data are skewed by the high proportion of Aboriginal people living in rural and remote regions as 4.74 per cent of all Indigenous peoples' deaths are attributed to suicide compared to 1.75 per cent in non-Indigenous people (Table 2), though the actual difference is thought to be much larger due to an under-reporting of suicides among Indigenous people. The highest suicide rate occurs in Indigenous males under the age of 35 years (ABS, 2012). Residents whose livelihood is dependent on agriculture (regardless of their cultural backgrounds) have been shown to be directly impacted by adverse climatic conditions. During the drought of 1997 to 2001 in South Australia 'farm men were approximately 40 per cent more likely than non-farm rural men to commit suicide' (King et al., 2011, p. 16). In New South Wales during periods of markedly lower rainfall (300 millimetres below average) there were reports of an 8 per cent increase in suicides (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008; Nicholls et al., 2006), while during the severe drought in northwest Victoria in 2007 among sixty farming families interviewed on three occasions over a one year period 12 per cent had been diagnosed with clinical depression (Birchip Cropping Group, 2008).

Besides the suicides and clinical diagnoses of mental illness among farmers there are numerous reports (Alston, 2006; Anderson, 2008; Tonna et al., 2009) of other diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues during periods of drought--these include nervous breakdowns, depression, sleep disorders, suicidal thoughts, severe strain, anxiety and distress (Alston, 2006), as well as excess alcohol consumption and illicit drug-use (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008), with associated 'difficulty of managing personal relationships'(Alston, 2006, p. 168). Furthermore, during the droughts the mental health issues extended to the children and wives of farmers (Birchip Cropping Group, 2008; Dean and Stain, 2007). In a study of 8 000 people living in rural areas, respondents who had been impacted by drought in the preceding three years reported almost twice the rate of mental health problems compared to those who had not been affected by drought (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008). Much of the mental health issues arise as a result of the prolonged stress of trying to maintain the farm as a viable entity, witnessing the loss of stock and crops, servicing farm debts and the lack of alternative sources of income (Berry et al. …

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