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Why are suicide rates higher in rural communities?

High levels of stress and low levels of services contribute to the high rural suicide rate.

Rural Australians report higher levels of life satisfaction than those who live in major cities - but within those communities, the people who struggle with mental health issues really suffer. Suicide rates are 50 per cent higher in rural communities than in major cities, according to research from The Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH). In Queensland, farmers are more than twice as likely than the general population to take their own lives, with the suicide rate rising to five times that of non-farmers in extremely remote parts of the state.

Rural residents face stressors such as drought, flood, bushfires, and a lack of control of their economic security. Farmers face an additional set of unique stressors; for many, farming is all they’ve ever known so it’s an intrinsic part of their identity. Not only is the farm their workplace, but their home as well. Farms have often belonged to the same family for generations, which adds to the financial and social pressure to make the business work.

“Mental health in rural communities is a huge issue,” confirms Martin Heppell, Partner and Facilitator at The Resilience Project. “As well as the many stressors these people face, there’s still a social stigma about talking about mental health issues, particularly amongst men. This means they are less likely to tell others how they are feeling or seek help from a professional.”

For those who do try and seek professional help, it isn’t easy to come by. For every $1 spent per capita on Medicare mental health services in major cities, just 10c is spent in very remote areas, according to the CRRMH. In major cities 668 people per 1000 have spoken to their GP about their mental health, whereas in rural and remote areas it’s only 241. It’s no wonder that since 2011 suicide rates have risen more sharply in rural communities than in urban areas.

Things are slowly beginning to change. In 2017, 25,000 people in rural communities were given mental health counselling via the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In 2019, new government funding will allow the flying doctors to reach three times as many people. The increased awareness within communities has led to some setting up ‘watch groups’ where they look out for people becoming withdrawn or showing other signs of stress.

A recent senate inquiry in to mental health in rural and remote areas recommends the government develops a national rural and remote mental health strategy. This would include funding to allow for more stability of services, as well as allow for more local input in designing services. This local input is extremely valuable; South Australia released a “Suicide Prevention Plan” in 2017, which charged local councils with working in partnership with local communities to implement services to specifically address local needs. The plan is working - South Australia now has the smallest gap in suicide rates between its capital city and the rest of its state.

As well as introducing short-term strategies such as identifying people who are suicidal and linking them to their GP or other services, the CRRMH believes medium-term prevention is also key to changing these patterns. There’s evidence to show that 50 per cent of mental health problems are established by age 14, and 75 per cent by age 24, so working with young people to prevent these issues escalating is essential. “Working with children to build resilience and help them have conversations about mental health is vital,” says Martin. “Helping people create a community of wellbeing can help prevent suicide.”

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