Rural people encouraged to seek mental health support on R U OK Day

For many of us, the year 2020 will be one we will never forget.

Crippling drought, destructive bushfires and a disruptive, fear-inducing pandemic have tested us. For rural people, when life on the land already presents significant challenges, the strain on mental health can be greater.

Today, on R U OK Day, we are encouraged to check in with each other and offer support to those in need.

Cotton Australia spoke to psychologist and Goondiwindi-based cotton grower Chantal Corish for insight into the current stresses being experienced by rural people, and for advice on what people can do to seek support.

Cotton Australia: From what you have observed as a psychologist, what have been the biggest issues impacting rural people’s mental health lately, and how are those issues manifesting?

Chantal Corish: Blanket government decisions made with urban populations in mind are causing rural people a great deal of stress. When that happen, it makes rural people feel ignored, irrelevant and powerless. Feeling powerless causes depression. The mental health fallout from that process of decision-making based on urban paradigms can be significant.

Some regions are having a cracking season and the winter crops are phenomenal. It will be great to see those farmers get their crops harvested and enjoy the rewards of many months of hard work and worry. Unfortunately, there are a lot of communities still experiencing the harrowing effects of drought. For cotton farmers in northern NSW that are staring down the barrel of another cropless cotton season, this is particularly mentally draining. And of course, there are many businesses relying on those cotton crops for a significant part of their livelihoods, which can be stressful.

Cotton Australia: What impact is the drought still having on farmers’ mental health?

Chantal Corish: That sense of waiting, constantly checking the weather channel and wondering how you are going to pay the bills if it doesn’t rain continues to be really draining. Farmers and small rural business owners can experience burnout from the mental load of drought survival.

I had a conversation with some people recently and it was interesting they were saying that even when they have a bit of rain now, they find themselves feeling wary and incapable of relaxing because the droughts have been so harsh and have lasted for so long in the past decade or so. You could say that drought conditions have left a mental scar on a lot of people in the bush.

COVID is just a blanket of fog over the top making things a little more confusing and difficult to negotiate.

Many cotton growers experiencing the waiting game for the weather to break have also, in recent times, taken a regular beating on social media. It’s incredibly demoralising and has a double-down effect on their mental health. They are unfairly treated when all they have done is purchase an asset (water licences) in a legal market, which in recent years they haven’t been allowed to benefit from.

Cotton Australia: What advice do you have for rural people who may be feeling the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Chantal Corish: If there’s anything rural Australians do well, it is cope with hardship and natural disasters.

Weirdly enough, COVID has presented rural people with a platform to be heard – to articulate what makes us different from urban areas and why we matter to the country as a whole.

It’s also given us a platform to showcase what we are made of, and what we have to offer. We need to be loud and persistent about our needs.

Rural Australia is the new ‘overseas’. We can benefit in so many ways by urban Australia’s shift in focus from European river cruises and trips to Disneyland to trips to Longreach and Winton, to outback NSW and regional Victoria.

I guess what I am saying is, let’s think of the advantages, let’s not be victims. We can orchestrate our destinies. COVID, in a strange way, has presented this opportunity for regional, rural and remote Australians.

Cotton Australia: With there being no end date in sight for the COVID-19 pandemic, what can people do to look after themselves at a time of unending uncertainty?

Chantal Corish: I can’t implore you enough to exercise a little bit each day, in whatever way you can. It is so good for your mental health – necessary in fact, I reckon. If you are feeling flat, a good walk or jog, or whatever you do to get your heart pumping healthily will lift your spirits nearly every time. If you are stuck inside, put music on and dance; dance with your kids, your partner, the dog – it’s a real game changer.

You also have to practice mindfulness… I know the ‘M’ word is overused, but hear me out – if you can pull yourself out of ruminating on what used to be, how things were, and you stop yourself constantly day dreaming about travelling overseas or whatever else you want to do that COVID has prevented you from doing, and literally focus on what’s in front of you, the here and now, you will probably find that you will feel a whole heap better. You will give yourself time to really take notice of the tiny details in your day, and really notice the people around you. You might even discover some really delightful new talents that you didn’t know you had.

Cotton Australia: On R U OK Day, we’re all encouraged to check in with each other… how should someone approach that conversation?

Chantal Corish: Men are the first to hide their mental health if they are having problems – they generally get taught from a young age to fit the stereotype of being a ‘real man’, requiring them to not talk about their feelings, not ask for help, and use aggression or alcohol to solve their problems.

I think discretion is key – don’t ask when there’s an audience. Also don’t be too pushy – it’s kind of like sitting on a riverbank fishing… you have to be patient and quiet and actually listen without judgement or problem solving too quickly.

We also need to teach our young boys that it’s ok to communicate their feelings, and that it’s ok to cry. Women have a huge role to play in ensuring men look after their mental health.

Cotton Australia: What should a person do/say when they ask someone if they’re ok and they say ‘no’?

Chantal Corish: Don’t panic. You just have to pause and listen. Really hear what they are trying to say. Don’t judge or try to problem solve too quickly. Most people just want to be heard – and once they have been able to get what they are feeling out in the open, off their chest, they often feel a whole lot better.

You also need to be discreet. If someone has been able to tell you what’s going on for them, respect their privacy if they request it.

If you think they really are in danger of harming themselves, encourage them to go to the hospital or contact their GP.

Don’t leave them alone if you think they are suicidal, but don’t try to deal with it on your own.

If you or someone you know needs support, contact:

  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
  • MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78
  • Kids Helpline - 1800 55 1800