Farmers in Australia can be particularly vulnerable when it comes to mental health risks given the stresses of their work environment. Evidence from Australia and similar settings indicates that while farmers are more likely to experience stress and depression, and die by suicide, they are not a monolithic group and significant variation exists among farmers in terms of their mental health needs. In part this is based on location, and in some cases other factors related to remoteness (for instance transport or poorer access to health care in rural areas).
Specific challenges to farmers’ mental health in Australia include:
- Reduced income and increased costs in challenging years leading to financial strain and insecurity
- Policy and economic challenges leading to financial strain (for example, the dairy price crisis of 2016)
- Physical and mental exhaustion resulting from exposure to long periods of stress (owing to the challenges associated with farming in Australia)
- Poor access to mental health services in rural and remote areas
- Lack of time to leave the farm during day time hours in order to access services
- Limited awareness of the importance of mental health and
- A culture which can often discourage conversations about mental health in what remains a largely masculine environment.
These themes were echoed by the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System (2021). The Royal Commission found that stigma and discrimination related to mental health can be felt acutely in rural communities, with barriers to service access and help-seeking including:
- Location of services
- Poor transport connectivity
- Higher travel costs, and
- Opportunity costs due to missed work.
Local service availability for mental health is often limited due to factors such as workforce retention and recruitment challenges in rural environments. While the Royal Commission was limited to Victoria, it can be argued that these findings can be applied to most of rural Australia, and even more so for remote Australia.
We know that in order to design appropriate and effective mental health supports for farmers, they need to:
- Be co-designed, to ensure they are farmer-friendly and ideally led and delivered by farmers (for example, peer-led models)
- Identify the partnerships required across existing farming infrastructures and ecosystems (for example, to map avenues for delivery and augmentation of interventions and bystander training)
- Continue to build mental health literacy in farming communities and literacy of the farming context for health service providers.
Several initiatives have been funded to improve access to mental health supports for farmers, as well as to promote mental health wellbeing, including the recent Resilient Farming Communities Project announced by the Victorian Government in September 2021. The project aims to co-design place-based initiatives in regional Victoria to increase awareness of mental health treatment options, care and support services, and enhance social connectedness through community events and training. Co-designing mental health initiatives with end users is a powerful approach that allows for developing place-based programs that are appropriate for their context. Co-design also helps foster a sense of ownership of the issue and the intervention, and in turn can increase the uptake and general acceptance of these programs.
At Larter, we possess in-depth expertise in supporting the co-design, implementation, and evaluation of innovative approaches to enhancing mental health. We work with Primary Health Networks (PHNs), other commissioning bodies and community-led groups, especially in regional and rural areas, to co-design models of care and services which meet local community needs and address access barriers head on.
Talk to us if you would like to explore how we can support your organisation in delivering positive mental health outcomes for farmers and other members of communities in regional and remote Australia.
 Premier of Victoria. Supporting Mental Health In Our Farming Communities (2021), https://www.premier.vic.gov.au/supporting-mental-health-our-farming-communities