Culture Of Resilience Sees Farmers Suffering In Silence

"You have to keep it to yourself, because the greater population out there has no idea. They just don’t understand."

"I feel like a failure."

Farmer Lynette Keanelly describes herself as proud and resilient, yet these are the words she finds herself uttering to her husband.

“I have said to him, 'I have failed'. I should be able to do this. I should be making money. Why can’t I do this?” she told ten daily.

Farmer Lynette Keneally walks through a bare paddock of Christmas trees. Image: Emma Brancatisano

The mother of two is among those battling a crippling drought to keep her orchard and Christmas tree farm in Oakdale, NSW, afloat. 

Up to 99 percent of NSW and 57 percent of Queensland is in drought, leaving farming families struggling to keep their livestock and crops alive, let alone put food on the table.

“It really hurts,” Keanelly said.

“You tend to not want to be on the farm but you have to be here … You can’t run away from it.”

Farming is well-recognised as being both physically and psychologically demanding, with the burden of mental health felt more strongly in rural or remote Australia.

A crippling drought across the country is taking a mental toll on our farmers. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Country psychologists are certain drought -- and a culture of resilience -- is taking its toll.

“Farmers don’t feel like they’re doing enough,” psychologist Dervla Loughnane told ten daily.

“For some, their farm has been in the family for generations and they feel like they’re the one who has dropped the ball.

Two years ago, Loughnane’s company Virtual Psychologist and rural charity Aussie Farmers set up a phone and messaging helpline for struggling farmers.

Now, the team of seven psychologists and two social workers is receiving about 50 or 60 calls a day.  

“Farmers are sharing with us their financial pressures, the instability, the fear of losing the farm,” she said. 

Farmers are responding to the helpline's messaging service. Image: Getty

About 68 percent of text messages are from men, while farmers’ wives are also reaching out privately.

“We have women sending us messages saying, 'my husband has gone out with a gun, what can I do?' Or, they may say, 'I’m stuck on this farm with no money. I need help',” she said. 

And then there are children who Loughnane says are “going without.”

“Kids are sharing the same issues as those in metropolitan cities, like cyberbullying. But they’re also being exposed to how much mum and dad owe and other things they shouldn’t know about ,” she said.

‘What does it look like?’

At the core is a concerning information gap, where many people aren't picking up the signs around mental health distress.

A study of 2500 people in rural or remote New South Wales found one third of those with moderate to high psychological distress did not associate their symptoms with a mental health problem.

Loughnane sees this regularly.

“We have a lot of farmer’s wives calling and saying, I think my husband is depressed. What does it look like?” he said.

When it comes to helping men, Loughnane begins with physical symptoms such as changes in sleep, mood or appetite, or an unstable relationship.

“These are things they can respond to. From there, we can work towards a diagnosis.”

‘I can’t take it anymore’

For some, the pressures are too much to bear. Loughnane says the most common call for help comes from those who say, “I want to walk away”.

The trained psychologist uses direct questions to unpack suicidality or suicidal thoughts. Of the 50 or 60 calls her team receives each day, she said two or three are “high-risk”.

“They are driven to that point where they honestly feel like taking their own life is the only solution,” she said.

In rural or remote Australia, the rate of suicide is 66 percent higher than in metropolitan areas.

The farming lifestyle is relentless, and many are not seeking help. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Farmers are twice as likely to die by suicide than other workers, with country males aged 15 to 29 twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.

And yet rural health services are scarce, with analysis from the National Rural Health Alliance finding just two psychiatrists and 25 psychologists for every 100,000 people in rural or remote Australia.

This compares to 120 psychologists available to the same amount of people in major cities.

Loughnane said while geography is part of the problem, services and information in the country are “definitely limited.”

‘You keep it to yourself’

Keneally says she has been able to keep going despite the mental challenges. But she is more open than most.

“You have to keep it to yourself, because the greater population out there has no idea. They just don’t understand,” she said.

Farmer Lynette Keanelly is open about her struggles. But many aren't. Image: Emma Brancatisano

Loughnane said the “culture of resilience” many farmers grow up in can also prove damaging.  

“They are a very resilient bunch with a strong connection to their community, but they won’t talk to each other,” she said.

"It is a cultural stigma where we don't talk about our weakness, where we handle everything on our own."

“Many also think someone is doing it worse off than themselves. To that we say, I’m sure they are suffering, but so are you.”

She urged farmers to share their stories. 

“I think we need to normalise the pressure that they feel, validate other farmers’ position and say it’s okay to feel like that and it has happened to me too.”

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or rural helpline Virtual Psychologist on 1300 665 234 (or send a text message to 0488 807 266) 

For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.