Academic journal article Rural Society

Understanding Resilience in South Australian Farm Families

Academic journal article Rural Society

Understanding Resilience in South Australian Farm Families

Article excerpt


In 2007, the South Australia (SA) Department of Health funded a 2-year qualitative research project aimed at enhancing resilience across the State's farm population. The prime objective of our proposed research, the preliminary results of which are reported here, is to develop a greater understanding of resilience among families in drought-affected rural areas of South Australia. In doing so, the research can provide guidance to policy makers and other end users in how best to promote resilience in individuals or communities who are at risk of psychological distress.

Resilience is a construct with two parts: (i) exposure to adversity, and (ii) positive adaptation (Luthar & Cicchetti, 2000). Resilience is conceptualised as a process wherein an individual (e.g. a farmer) displays positive adjustment such as psychological well-being or the absence of psychological distress despite experiencing adversity like severe drought. Given this conceptualisation of resilience as a process rather than an inherent personality trait, resilience can be promoted and the impact of mental health disorders moderated. It is important to identify the factors that help to moderate the negative effects that generate psychological distress resulting from exposure to adversity. In the context of farming in drought conditions, for example, age and/or experience may be a protective factor.

Previous quantitative research in the field of psychology has identified three models of resilience: the protective, the cumulative and the challenge model (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005; Schoon, 2006). Each model describes links between risk, resource factors and 'doing okay'. The protection model assumes that the resource factors interact with the risk factor in reducing the effect of the risk on an outcome. The cumulative model assumes resource factors have a direct effect on an outcome, which can be independent from the risk factor. Essentially, the combined influence of different resources counteracts the effects of the risk factor. The challenge model assumes that the association between a risk factor and an outcome is non-linear; low or moderate levels of risk exposure provide opportunities to learn how to overcome risk thereby preparing the individual for future exposure to risk. Inherent in these models are a number of methodological dilemmas, which serve to weaken their application, including: who should judge 'getting by' and by what criteria; variability in risk exposure (Kaplan, 1999; Schoon, 2006).

This study assumes that risk and 'getting by' is socially constructed, and therefore resilience is best investigated phenomenologically. 'Understood this way, resilience is the outcomes of negotiations between individuals and their environments to maintain a self-definition as healthy' (Ungar, 2004, p. 341). Resilience is a systemic, self-organising process and is a result of complex interactions (Cork, 2009). As such, this study applies a qualitative methodology to the study of resilience and is informed rather than directed by the models above.

This study focuses on the prevention of mental health problems and the promotion of well-being amongst rural Australians. According to a number of researchers, the current lack of adequate research is a significant barrier to the long-term improvement of the mental health and well-being of rural Australians (Judd et al., 2002). Our proposed research attempts to remedy this gap. Importantly, there are a number of contextual factors currently impacting on the viability of farms and well-being of farming families. These include (Drought Policy Review Expert Social Panel, 2008; Rickards, 2009; Sobels, 2007):

* The global economic crisis

* The Australian mining boom creating a rural labour shortage

* Rising input costs

* Narrow margins

* Grain marketing

* Fund involvement in and manipulation of commodity markets

* Water regulations

* Climate change

* Drought

* Ageing of farmers and ageing of rural communities

* Shrinking rural communities and services

* Shifting town demographics

* Larger farms

Farming is an environment that is prone to adversity such as animal/crop disease, bush-fire and drought, and farmers and their families may experience a range of stressors associated with technological change, social isolation and finance (Gray & Lawrence, 1996; Gregoire, 2002). …

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