Drought Casts Suicide
Shadow Over
Rural Australia

By Michael Perry
SYDNEY (Reuters) - The rate of rural suicide in Australia is among the highest in the world as farmers battle the stress of years of drought, failed crops, mounting debt and slowly decaying towns.
"Every day I look outside and I say to myself: 'I get so sick to death of blue sky'," wrote farmer Mick in a recent book, "Tough Times," in which 10 country men talk about their fight with depression and thoughts of suicide.
"I just want to see some clouds and some rain," said Mick, who has lived on a small farm all his life.
"The strain is just so constant and long and it's like someone grabbing at me by the throat and slowly choking you a bit more each day."
A total of 2,213 Australians committed suicide in 2003, the latest available statistics. The vast majority were men.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says Australia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, exceeding nations such as Canada, the United States and Britain.
While the rate of depression, which leads to suicide, is equal in urban and rural Australia, the rate of suicide per 100,000 people jumps more than 20 percent in the country.
In fact the more isolated the farmer the more chance he will resort to suicide, according to the Ministerial Council for Suicide Prevention.
"Rural suicide rates are one of the highest in the world," said Leonie Young, head of Beyondblue, a mental health group. Australia's rural suicide rate, 17 per 100,000 people, is above the national suicide rates of Canada and the United States.
The Land newspaper recently ran a drought headline -- "The cost: suicide every four days." There are around 1,000 suicides a year in rural Australia, just under 20 deaths a week.
After surviving a catastrophic 2002-03 drought -- the worst in 100 years -- many farmers thought they'd never see such hardships again. Yet 2005 is shaping up as a return to those horror conditions, with dams bone-dry and sun-baked farmlands cracking.
Some farmers have had no income for several years and many rely on off-farm work to survive. Drought has wiped A$8 billion (US$6 billion) off agricultural production since 2002.
National farm debt has doubled in five years to A$40.3 billion, as farmers borrow each season to plant crops only to see them shrivel and die.
Cattle and sheep farmers have sent valuable livestock to slaughter because they can no longer afford to buy feed or water. That leaves them without vital breeding stock to rebuild their farms when the drought eventually breaks.
"It's no secret that many people are feeling the emotional strain of this devastating drought. In the last six weeks there has been another wave of depression," said Mal Peters, president of the New South Wales Farmers' Association.
"We are seeing some farmers commit suicide," he said.
Coral Russell has fought the despair of watching her beloved "Gunn Homestead" become a barren landscape. To cheer herself up recently she found a 1978 photo album which showed a lush, green landscape, with a bubbling creek running near her farmhouse.
"There are days when you just despair. This is beautiful country -- as long as you get the rain," Russell said from her 2,700-hectare (6,670-acre) wheat and sheep farm near Barellan, 400 km (250 miles) southwest of Sydney.
But Russell's heart goes out to the men who work the land.
"It is devastating for the men because they are not producing, not feeding their families," said Russell, who has started to hear stories of suicides on the "bush telegraph."
"There are farmers who are a worry because they stay at home, become unsociable and withdraw. They have no respite from it. It is frightening that it is cutting that deep into the lives of farmers," she said.
A new rural study has found that life on the land, once romanticized by Australia's great writers and poets as the backbone of the nation, is a virtual health hazard. Bush people are likely to die younger than city dwellers.
Some 300,000 rural people suffer from depression each year but mental health is a taboo subject in the outback and stoical farmers see stress as a weakness.
"These are tough rural men. They are resilient. They fight bushfires, drought, floods and stock losses on a regular basis," said Beyondblue's Young. "We need to get the message out, in these tough times, that depression is an illness."
Young said that while farmers were reluctant to seek help to combat mental illness many were simply just too isolated. Living hundreds of kilometers (miles) from a town, the daily responsibility of feeding and watering starving livestock meant they could not leave their property.
Drought, coupled with rapid economic and social changes in rural Australia, has seen the number of farms halved since the 1960s and those farmers left now feel abandoned, their cultural identity and national relevance questioned.
Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson, himself a farmer, warns that more and more farmers are leaving the land.
"If we're not careful, in 10 or 15 years' time we will have a serious shortage of farmers," said Anderson. "There's a limit to how much anyone can be reasonably expected to put up with."
"There are young farmers everywhere saying, 'I don't want to give it away, but if there's no future, I'll have to'."
But as Coral Russell has found it's not that easy to walk away from a depressing dustbowl farm. "They (farms) are not selling, so you can't get out." ($1=A$1.32)
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From Steve Davis
Dear Jeff,
Its always so sad to see droughts destroy decades of hard rural work, and the story from Australia is one of many very sad ones.
One thing we have learned the hard way in the SW USA desert is that its not the drought that kills the land its the mismanagement that kills the land. In fact, what we always assumed, that cattle destroy the grass, and the drought destroys the grass was totally arse backwards !
Its properly managed cattle and other livestock in harmony with the land that makes the grass grow, and its the grass that makes the water and rain !
Wayne's research has proven the intimate symbiosis of man-livestock-grass-water that has been missing since ranching began. Man has almost always herded cattle to maximize profits short run while destroying the land long run. Droughts come and go and if its managed carefully, it can be survived successfully.
Its incredible to see arid wasteland turned so productive so quickly! Cattle grazing spreadout hay cause just the right trampling of old growth and weeds while mixing topsoil with mulch, manure, urine and new good seed to generate lush fast growth the very next rain.
Other details of mulching with hay include soil organism protection from UV rays,now proven to be vital, protection from soil erosion, increases in wildlife, with thier own positive grazing effects and fertilization. Birds add even more help and the whole system spirals upwards instead of the same old downward desication and drought. Grass and trees then transpire moisture properly through life giving systems and make clouds reappear and condense and conserve more moisture, it adds up fast.
With billions of square miles turned to desert wastelands, this technique and others like Clay Balls For Optimum Seed Sowing Awesome Free Seed Catalogue
based on Japanese Fukuoka hay mulching/seedballs
and local water developments like
are now so desperately needed to be expanded worldwide.
We can turnback the deserts, we can restore the wastelands, and we all can have clean water and organic foods. It also takes changes in mindset and renewed faith to overcome global drought, depression, disease and dispair, but new successful techniques can go a long way to reverse these apocalyptic trends.
Steve Davis
Science Researcher



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