Words by Georgia Cameron Art by Kelly Zheng
Regional Australia is known for its beauty and boundlessness. But amongst these limitless planes of ours, there are communities who are suffering. Mental health is a global issue, but in these small towns across Australia, access to mental health care and support is limited if provided at all. But there are people trying to change that.
Around Australia, roughly 20% of people suffer with mental health issues. Sadly, the rate of suicide in rural and regional areas is about 40% higher than major cities. Worse still, the suicide rates in remote areas are almost twice the major cities rates. Despite this, the number of mental health nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists available is less than half that of major cities.
This inequality of resources matters. As someone who grew up in a small-town, mental health care is sparse, to say the least. I was one of the lucky few who lived close enough to a town that had a mental health clinic for young people. But even that was insufficient. This small clinic was a 30 to 40-minute drive away and the waiting list to get treatment was long. Our school also had a limited willingness to engage in mental health support—there was one councillor for over 1000 students.
Life in these rural communities is nothing like living in the city. There is a wondrous sense of community in these small towns, but life on the land is one of the toughest gigs there is in Australia; one of the hardest factors being the unpredictability of the weather. Farmers face losing whole crops due to weather which leads to loss of income. Social isolation from living so far away from a major city, lack of employment opportunities, the extreme stigma around mental health, the need to be perceived as ‘tough’ and much more adds to the suffering of those in small towns. It is far too easy for people in these communities to lose hope and without sufficient care, they will continue to suffer.
There is a wondrous sense of community in these small towns, but life on the land is one of the toughest gigs there is in Australia.
But there are several organisations doing the hard yards to try and get the help needed for these communities. First, we are off to Albury, a town located on the border of New South Wales and Victoria. This is where the founders of Survivors of Suicide and Friends, Annette and Stuart Baker, started their event called Winter Solstice. It aims to gather the local community on the longest night of the year to raise the subject of suicide and mental health. Each year, thousands of attendees share their message of shining a light even on the longest of nights. In 2019, former Australian of the Year and domestic violence prevention advocate, Rosie Batty spoke about her experience of mental illness and grief (see profile over page).
Next, we enter the online space where Western Victorian men are stripping away layers to talk about mental health. Literally. Ben Brooksby is the founder of the Naked Farmer, where he and his team are tastefully taking off their clothes to get their message about regional mental health out. Ben, who suffers from anxiety himself, created the movement after posting a liberating picture of himself online. After going viral he knew he had a platform to say something important.
“By using the combination of nudity and farm work, the Naked Farmer is starting conversations about mental health across Australia because, at the end of the day, it’s easier to talk about what’s inside once someone has bared everything on the outside” their website states. This message is clear throughout their now various online platforms, reaching not only throughout rural Australia but regional towns across the globe.
Across our beautiful country, there are a handful of trees that have been painted blue. The trend started in Western Australia where the family and friends of Jayden Whyte painted 15 dead trees blue after Jayden took his own life. Now the trees have spread across the country, and each one comes with a sign encouraging people to talk about how they’re feeling. The Blue Tree Project aligns with the #YouCanTalk campaign which has been promoted across various mental health organisations such as Beyond Blue, R U OK? and the Black Dog Institute.
Rural and Remote Mental Health develop and implement mental health awareness, prevention and intervention programs specifically for rural and remote communities. Their goal is to make sure that no one feels alone or be left behind, especially in the most extreme, unpredictable, isolated, economically and financially uncertain areas of this country. With tailored programs for agricultural, Indigenous and mining towns they hope to not only provide support for those in need, but the education, training and awareness needed to reduce the stigma around mental health in regional communities.
Rural Australia is known for their corner pubs, handmade markets and friendly locals. Sadly, it is also marked by unpredictability, isolation, economic and financial uncertainty, incessant change and extreme weather events. Nonetheless, it shouldn’t be marked by the number of suicides. Always remember to support those around you and get help when needed.