Academic journal article Rural Society

Resilience and Well-Being of Small Inland Communities: Community Assets as Key Determinants

Academic journal article Rural Society

Resilience and Well-Being of Small Inland Communities: Community Assets as Key Determinants

Article excerpt

Introduction

Small, inland rural communities face many challenges but may also possess strengths that can assist them in effectively addressing these challenges. This study investigated strengths in eight small rural communities of southern New South Wales, Australia, as a basis for facilitating community action that would enhance community resilience and well-being. To set the scene, we start with an overview of the challenges typically faced by these small inland communities, the benefits experienced by these communities and a framework for thinking about community resilience and well-being and their determinants.

Challenges for small, inland rural communities

In Australia, 'the current drought is considered unprecedented in terms of its geographic spread, length and severity. Some areas have been declared as experiencing exceptional circumstances for 13 of the past 16 years' (Productivity Commission, 2008). This situation has severely impacted upon many rural towns and communities. Local economies have suffered, as the loss of income to farmers has flowed through to affect most businesses in local communities (Bureau of Rural Sciences, 2008). The economic loss and the 'natural' causes of the events have left whole communities feeling helpless to deal effectively with the situation and fearful of what will happen in the future. However, the current climate effects are also intertwined with the changing social and demographic characteristics of rural Australia, which include lower numbers of farmers, with larger holdings, who are older and work longer hours (Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics, 2008). A recent report by an Australian Government Drought Policy Review Expert Social Panel highlighted the difficulty in separating the 'impact of dryness from the longer term sociodemographic trends contributing to a decline for some rural populations' (Drought Policy Review Expert Social Panel, 2008, p. 27).

Unfortunately, rural communities also face greater difficulties than urban dwellers in relation to health. The World Health Organisation (2008, p. 33) defines health as 'a state of complete physical, mental and social well being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity', and in this paper we use the terms 'health' and 'well-being' interchangeably. Increasing degrees of remoteness are associated with increasing scarcity of health services, additional sources of physical health risk, harsher environments, and greater threats to the sustainability of services and whole communities (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2007). These issues lead to problems such as transport difficulties to and from treatment, long waiting lists, lack of after hours services and a lack of qualified professionals (Aisbett, Boyd, Francis, Newnham, & Newnham, 2007). All of these concerns affect the well-being of small, inland rural communities, and may require very different solutions to those applied in coastal communities and major cities.

Benefits of living in rural communities

While rural communities are often associated with a multitude of challenges, such as those described above, they are also frequently attributed with considerable benefits and strengths associated with rural life and living. Contrary to popular opinion, levels of access to services have not been found to be associated with levels of psychological distress or disability (Murray et al., 2004). Surprisingly, Murray et al. found that life in rural towns (as opposed to more isolated farming communities) is associated with higher levels of perceived well-being and satisfaction than that experienced by city dwellers. Others have also shown rural life to be associated with higher levels of well-being. Previous research has shown (Cummins, Davern, Okerstrom, Lo, & Eckersley, 2005, p. 5), for example, that:

(a) The highest level of personal wellbeing is achieved by people who live in rural towns, with their self-ratings of personal wellbeing being higher than for people who live in capital cities and more remote regions. …

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