Pathways to Suicide

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them, there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

The drought had left the flies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny livestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.

‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into the second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer.

The Dry

Jane Harper’s debut novel The Dry offers a telling account of community life in rural Australia during the worst drought in decades. The novel addresses an all-too-predictable rural tragedy. Luke Hadley has apparently killed his wife, his son and then himself in the deranged act typical of a farmer-driven mad by despair and drought.

Drought is considered a key determinant of poor mental health and a defining feature of explanations for increases in farmer suicides.

But researchers have found there are many individual, economic, environmental and climatic stressors that have an impact on farmers’ mental health, increasing the risk of suicide. These include

• personality characteristics
• long work hours, low income with high assets, social isolation, an ageing population, an overlap of work and family environments
• poor access to health care services
• regulatory and industry factors beyond the farmer’s control
• enduring prolonged periods of climate variability

How and when these factors may lead farmers to suicide is still unclear. Furthermore, common assumptions about farmers and suicide need further thought or re-examination.

In 2006, Jeff Kennett, chairman of beyondblue, an independent not-for-profit working to increase awareness for anxiety and depression, voiced his concern about the incidence of suicide in farming communities. He said,

“My fear is that when under prolonged stress and when they see their assets totally denuded of value, that we see an increase in suicides.”

During times of drought, farmers feel powerless, knowing they a lack of control over factors that lead to farming success.

But it is not known why one farmer affected by drought takes his own life, while his neighbour – who is equally affected –does not.

Droughts influence on suicide can’t be viewed in isolation as suicide is known to be influenced by long-term and short-term factors.

Without doubt the relationship between drought and suicide is an important area of research because the continent of Australia is often affected by long periods of dry weather. Climate change projections also show future increases in the frequency, intensity and area affected by drought.

According to statistics, male farmers are at an elevated risk of suicide. In 2013, Melbourne University researchers found the suicide rate for agricultural workers was 1.6 times higher than the average for all employed people. In Queensland, agricultural workers have been found to have the highest suicide rates compared to other occupational groups.

A recent study, Pathways to Suicide in Australian Farmers (April 2017), identified two distinct pathways to suicide. They are

(1) Situational – where suicide has occurred in response to acute situational life stressors.

Middle-aged men encounter relationship problems involving separation and divorce. There may also be child custody and paternity problems.

Separation and divorce have been shown to cause shame and anger, threatening masculinity and traditional gender roles and lead to acute stress, depression and substance abuse. Men who experience a relationship breakdown withdraw socially and become isolated.

Older men encounter financial difficulties compounded by pending retirement.

Financial hardship may be attributed to falling commodity prices, reliance on credit, rising interest rates, shrinking margins, unfavourable foreign exchange rates, competition from foreign imports, the outbreak of disease and extreme climatic events.

Older men may fear that their dreams of a financially independent retirement will not come true, despite a lifetime of work. They may feel despondent at not being able to leave a viable farming business to their children, as had happened for them and earlier generations. They may see themselves as a burden on other members of the farming family.

Stress is the physical, mental and emotional response to a stress-causing factor or ‘stressor’. Stress can come from any situation or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous, or anxious.

The inability to cope with stress in healthy ways can exacerbate and even lead to suicidal thoughts.

(2) Protracted – where suicide has been a protracted process – farmers experienced a diagnosed psychiatric disorder as a life stressor over many years.

Due to the manual nature of their work farmers are dependent on their physical and mental health. A farmer with an established psychiatric disorder – bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, chronic depression – may have experienced intermittent periods of hospitalisation. They may be unable to work as a result of their health concerns.

Suicide is a solitary pathway. It is walked alone. Often, no-one else is aware of what is being contemplated. It is a private space where thoughts and fears comingle.

There are diverse factors that influence a person to take their life. Whilst we may be aware of some of the stressors it’s inadvisable to speculate on ‘the why’ of suicide. Oversimplifying the causes of suicide is unhelpful and leads to confusion.

Suicide is rarely the result of a single factor or event. It may appear that one event triggered the suicide but this is extremely unlikely. Most people who die by suicide have had a history of problems, which may be discounted or overlooked in the aftermath of the suicide.

Although there is a causal relationship between drought-related trauma and increased suicide risk in rural men it is unclear why this is so. To reduce it down to ‘drought equals suicide’ is misleading.

And what of the tragedy that engulfed the Hadley family? The drought wasn’t the cause of their deaths. They were the victims of a social ill that ensnares many.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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