Research projects

Depression in farmers and farming families

Principal Researchers

Prof Fiona Judd¹, Prof Henry Jackson², Caitlin Fraser³, Greg Murray4, Assoc Prof Garry Robins² and Angela Komiti5

Institution

¹ Centre for Women’s Mental Health, Royal Women’s Hospital

² School of Behavioural Science, University of Melbourne

³ Centre for Rural Mental Health, Bendigo Health Care Group

4 School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology

5 Department of Psychiatry, University of Melbourne.

Funding

$50,000

Award Type

beyondblue Victorian Centre of Excellence

Project completion year

2005

Project brief

It is well recognised that farming is a physically and psychologically-demanding occupation (Deary et al., 1997).  In Australia, farming is now characterised by high rates of stress (Gray & Lawrence, 1996), injury and suicide (Page & Fragar, 2002). Understanding and developing interventions to promote mental health in farming communities is a matter of urgency.

This study involved farmers across north-western Victoria and western New South Wales. Using surveys, the study examined rates of psychological distress among farmers. Farmers were also interviewed about their perceptions of the impact of their lifestyle and work on mental health, and help-seeking behaviours for mental health problems.

Key Findings

This project identified four key issues, each of which is elaborated upon below:

Rates of psychological distress

While farming is recognised as a high-stress industry, the study did not find higher rates of psychological distress among farmers, compared with non-farmers (Judd et al., 2006). In fact, this study identified that common personality traits found among farmers may protect against psychological distress.

Resilience in the face of adversity

All the farmers interviewed were strongly attached to farming as both an occupation and a way of life. They also described an array of stressors. Despite these demands, people displayed a high level of resilience in the face of adversity. It was clear from the data that there was considerable evidence to support the stereotype of farmers as tough and resourceful.

The survey data also identified that farmers were less likely to be depressed and anxious compared with non-farmers. Participants spoke about overcoming a range of challenges through their determination and hard work, as the quote from Sally, a female farmer, highlights:

Life was pretty damn tough, it was tough for me and it was extremely tough for the kids, we had no money …we had nothing, we didn’t even have a television or a refrigerator… we had an esky from the tip! How did I cope mentally?  I focused on the future and …on the job at hand…and on my own ability and I just worked my guts out.

Limited acceptance of depression and other psychological problems among individuals and the farming community

Participants identified that when faced with problems, it was important to stay positive and develop practical solutions. There was limited acceptance and acknowledgement of distressing feelings and issues such as depression. People who dwelled upon problems were described as “whingers”. This attitude was most common among male farmers, who often rejected the notion that farming difficulties affected them psychologically, as the following exchange between Paul and Alice demonstrates:

Alice: Paul, at one stage, was not sleeping. It was just dreadful.  All he could talk about was water; it was not easy to live with him for quite some time. He used to lie there and toss and turn…But they don’t admit to having a problem.

Paul: There is no point going out and whinging about it, you just sort of wear it, don’t you? They don’t admit to it, but then they don’t have a problem.

Alice: It is not something you admit.

Paul: I don’t get stressed.

Alice: See, there you go!

Not all male farmers in the study reported these types of responses to stressful situations, with a number emphasising the importance of talking to others and seeking help.

They did note however, that their attitudes were not common among the farming community.

While open discussion of problems was often seen as inappropriate, alcohol use was seen as a much more acceptable response to dealing with challenging times and experiences and alcohol consumption was deeply entrenched in the farming culture.

Barriers to Care in Farming Communities

A range of barriers to mental health care were identified including:

  • a preference to seek help from friends and family rather than from health professionals
  • stigma associated with mental illness leading to limited acceptance of mental health care
  • reduced sense of confidentiality: the population size of small farming communities typically means there is a high level of local knowledge and visibility among residents. Thus, there was a sense that maintaining anonymity and confidentiality when accessing services could be compromised. participants reported that this increased likelihood of community awareness of service utilisation, limited their access to mental health care.
  • limited accessibility of formal health providers and services due to geographic distance and limited availability of providers. 

Implications for Policy and Practice

Farmers do not appear to experience higher rates of psychological distress, compared with the non-farming community. However, a range of personal and structural barriers does exist for farmers in terms of accessing mental health care when mental health problems emerge.

Personal strength, independence and ‘toughing it out’ are central values in farming culture, and seeking help for mental health problems is seen as the antithesis of these values.

Further efforts need to be made to address the personal implications of acknowledging that one has mental health problems.

In addition greater availability and accessibility of mental health care providers is required.

Future Directions

The findings of the study have been disseminated widely throughout the rural community via the publication of reports and presentations to both research and community groups. The investigators are continuing to explore issues around stigma, attitudes toward help-seeking and suicide in Australian farmers.

About the Researchers

The DART-R (Depression, Anxiety Research and Treatment- Rural) Team have worked collaboratively for over five years focusing on a range of mental health issues in rural communities.

Previous research undertaken by the group has included the distribution of mental health problems across rural areas, help-seeking, the role of social networks and on the impact of ‘place’ on rural mental health. 

DART-R is a collaboration between Monash University School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine; Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry, The University of Melbourne; School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Swinburne University of Technology; and the Centre for Rural Mental Health, Bendigo Health Care Group.

References

Deary, I., Willock, J., & McGregory, M (1997), Stress in Farming, Stress Medicine 13 (131), 136.

Gray, I., & Lawrence, G., (1996), Predictors of Stress Among Australian Farmers, Australian Journal Of Social Issues 31 (2), 173-189.

Judd, F., Jackson, H., Fraser, C., Murray, G., Robbins, G., & Komiti, A., (2006), Understanding suicide in Australian farmers, Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology 41 (1), 1-10.

Page, A & Fragar, L (2002), Suicide in Australian farming, 1988-1997, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 36 (1), 81-5. 

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