Rural Aid counsellor talks about National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

Rural Aid counsellor Zoe Cox says while rain has helped some, many have missed out. Photo: Supplied
Rural Aid counsellor Zoe Cox says while rain has helped some, many have missed out. Photo: Supplied

A counsellor who offers support to drought affected farmers is urging rural communities to acknowledge National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month this September.

Zoe Cox is a counsellor with Rural Aid and offers free support to those registered with the charity.

She found herself in unique circumstances while meeting with those in need of support.

"I have offered counselling in the cattle yards, whilst the farmer is drenching the stock. I have found myself sitting on a boulder with a farmer, in the middle of their favourite paddock," Ms Cox said.

"I have helped a farmer deliver a newborn goat at the tail end of a counselling session and even counselled a farmer whilst helping them throw dead sheep carcasses into the tray of their ute.

"We find that this medium for delivering therapy creates comfortability and a sense of equality and safety, whilst simultaneously breaking down the stigma associated with what it means to receive psychological help."

The counsellor said suicide rates in rural and remote communities are significantly higher than the national average with rates of suicide in extremely remote regions reaching double that of major capital cities.

"74.4 per cent of those who take their own life are males and suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians between the age of 15 and 44," Ms Cox added.

"These gender and age statistics are extremely relevant to rural demographics where we are seeing heightened stress placed on farmers due to financial hardship, environmental adversity and isolation.

"When farming is such a multi-generational and family-oriented occupation and culture, it is incredibly important for rural communities to acknowledge National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month so that we can minimise the risk of suicide in our current and future generations of farmers."

She said we can do this by sharing information about services such as Rural Aid's Counselling Program and the ease and accessibility of the service - a major shortcoming of many rural and remote mental health support services.

Ms Cox says the unprecedented times during COVID-19 has required us all to adapt and find creative ways to connect.

"As counsellors, we were luckily able to continue offering the service via phone and in many ways, this allowed us to connect with even more farmers as we were saving on travel time," she said.

"We observed that COVID-19 lockdown placed a heightened level of stress on families due to the pressure of home schooling amongst all other farming commitments at a time where farmers were already time poor.

"The uncertainty of the markets, interstate transport and export restrictions also impacted heavily on farming families, yet farmers did express their appreciation for living in rural communities at a time where the limitations of lockdown were inevitably more challenging for those in metropolitan areas from a mental health perspective."

Despite the increased stress due to the global health pandemic, Ms Cox said recent rainfall has boosted spirits for those in areas lucky enough to have received it.

"Yet areas like Broken Hill and the surrounds continue to struggle," she said.

"Grass on the ground and a reduced need to hard feed has offered farmers reprieve. That said, the financial hangover and backlash of a drought of this grandeur can last for years after rain has arrived and for this, ongoing support for farmers and their families is critical."