Although farmers and fishers around the world have always been exposed to the vagaries of climate and global economic forces, in recent years there have been particular pressures due to the global financial crisis and a series of severe climatic and natural disaster impacts. There has been an accumulation of factors which had a particularly severe effect on rural Australia, collectively described in this research as 'difficult times'. They include reduced demand for agricultural products, lower prices, climate variability and the effects of long-term drought. 'Difficult times' affect physical health and psychological wellbeing (Alston & Kent, 2008; Clark, Brinkley, Lamont, & Laughlin, 2000; Wallis & Dollard, 2008).
Occupation and rurality are important determinants of physical and mental health. Occupational stress has been suggested as explaining the link between occupation and health, through a sense of lack of control and high work demands (Karasek, 1979) or perceived low rewards, job insecurity and other psychosocial factors (Siegrist, 2004; Siegrist, Benach, Goldblatt, & McKnight, 2009). Labour intensification, or working harder without increasing hours, has been suggested to negatively affect workers' health. The concept of a fixed amount of health capital (Blaxter, 2010) that is drawn down over a working life has been used to explain why workers in occupations which place heavy demands on mind and body, such as farming or seafaring, suffer poor health after a time in the occupation (Bloor, 2011). Occupational quality influences social integration and sense of control, which have been shown to impact on health behaviours and outcomes in rural areas (Wickrama, Lorenz, Conger, Matthews, & Elder, 1997).
Rural culture which favours stoicism, along with gender, influences health beliefs and behaviours in both positive and negative ways (Fragar, Henderson, Morton, & Pollock, 2007; King, Lane, MacDougall, & Greenhill, 2009). Many male farmers' definitions of rurality and masculinity, constructed around notions of being tough and uncompromising and the custodian of the family land, lead them to think they have failed their families and communities in these difficult times (Alston, 2012). Increased government regulation, and a widening of the schism between urban and rural Australians can also be expected to impact on the mental health of farmers and fishers. Rurality is associated with less positive health behaviours in Australia (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2008).
There is a large body of research that indicates a positive link between social cohesion or connectedness and improved health outcomes for rural people (Caldwell & Boyd, 2009; Harvey, 2007; Hegney et al., 2007; Humphreys, 2000; Putnam, 2004). Some of this research has conflated social cohesion and social capital (Szreter & Woolcock, 2004). Szreter and Woolcock (2004) argue that it is the quality and quantity of human relationships, rather than material health system resources alone, that are the crucial elements in link between social capital and health outcomes in developed societies.
Communities of place facilitate social connection through social assets. Social assets that are highly valued in small rural communities include community organisations and sporting clubs, as they promote both interpersonal interactions and social ties within communities (Maybery, Pope, Hodgins, Hitchenor, & Shepherd, 2009), important in a context where mental health is placed at risk due to social and environmental pressures. Additionally, Australian farmers live and work on properties that may be many kilometres from urban or regional settlements, meaning that social connection is not interwoven with everyday life to the same extent it is for town dwellers.
Farmer health behaviours are influenced by levels of community and industry social capital, levels of political activity, and the nature and vitality of agricultural industry in the region (Greenhill, King, Lane, & MacDougall, 2009; King et al. …