As debate rages in cities, rural communities, media outlets and through the vast networks of the twitterverse as to the economic and environmental costs of implementing the recently published Murray-Darling Basin plan, there is one factor that has remained unmentioned. The exception to this apparent hidden cost is the Member for Kennedy, Bob Katter, who has spoken openly and defiantly about the detrimental effects the plan will have on social impacts, particularly mental health, and the risk of increased suicide resulting from loss of livelihood and/or threats to livelihood.

Rates of suicide in rural and remote Australia are significantly higher than the national average. The suicide rates of very remote regions is more than double that of major capital cities. According to research conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), men in regional and remote areas are 1.3 to 2.6 times more likely to end their life by suicide than their urban counterparts. These are alarming statistics.

So why is the Murray-Darling Basin plan likely to result in increased suicides and adverse mental health? To answer this question we need to look at the factors contributing to the high incidents of completed suicides in rural and regional areas; particularly amongst the male population.

People in rural communities are extremely vulnerable to climatic factors and economic changes because incomes are, in general, lower than in urban Australia. Whether it is flood or drought or the high Australian dollar, all have a direct and significant impact on farming communities which can lead to individual financial hardship, unemployment and bankruptcy. This in turn can lead to depression, a sense of hopelessness, substance abuse or relationship conflict and/or breakdown — all of which are high risk factors attributing to suicide.

People in urban areas are equally at risk to suicide when affected by economic hardship, but there are additional issues impacting rural communities; de-population and the withdrawal of essential services being amongst the most significant. You can read further about this problem in the Australian Farm Institute research report titled Essential Services in Urban and Regional Australia — a Quantitative Comparison.

Mental illness has been described as the epidemic of modern times, with one in four Australians suffering.  In regional areas, access to mental health services in regional areas is considerably less than in major metropolitan centres.  The situation is further exacerbated by fewer GPs who form the “front line” in the treatment of mental illness.  When we combine the factors of a lack of GPs in rural areas and a high level of prevalent mental illness in the community, it is clear that the medical infrastructure is absent. Without the added support that mental health patients require, it is little surprise that the rate of suicide in regional Australia is significantly higher to that of our metropolitan areas.

Peter Fray

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