Preparing rural communities for the adversity that will come

Preparing rural communities for the adversity that will come

For rural people, it can feel as though life consists of one adverse event after another with no let-up before the next catastrophe strikes.

Drought, fire, floods, pests, changes in commodity prices seem to challenge the foundations of rural living and we are seeing the impact in levels of distress and mental ill-health.

This rural adversity cycle is familiar to our friends across the world - just recently I was talking with a colleague against a background of intense bushfires in Colorado.

But it's not just rural adversity. Rural people also face the normal challenges of life such as sickness, bereavement, losses by suicide, alongside injury, unemployment and business failure.

While the levels of infections and number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 in rural Australia have been limited, the economic and social consequences of the lockdowns have been considerable.

It's clear no-one in rural Australia is immune to this cycle, and that it is not a question of isolated events that can be addressed by short-term spending on help lines, counsellors and mental health workers.

Our research, launched at the Australia and New Zealand Rural Mental Health Symposium, examines how this pattern of adverse events impacts on the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities causing psychological distress, mental ill-health and a reduced ability of communities to adapt and recover.

We show how human, material and economic loss undermines wellbeing and a community's ability to support vulnerable members. This is accompanied by increased anxiety, depression, substance misuse, post-traumatic symptoms and suicide risk. All this reduces the ability to cope with the next adverse event.

In response, we need to recognise the extent of this challenge and move from short-term and sometimes overlapping responses to comprehensive and extended responses that combine disaster response with psychological support to mitigate human losses, financial help for material losses and investments in rural business and development community development.

In many places, mental health services will need to be enhanced and mitigation undertaken to increase preparedness for future events.

We already spend considerable money in our response to rural adversity, but we should ask whether this strengthens individuals, families and communities as such events become more common.

The evidence suggests a new approach is needed.

Professor David Perkins is director of the University of Newcastle's Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health.

  • To view the paper, visit https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/19/7205
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