FEATURE - Drought Casts Suicide Shadow over Rural Australia
Author: Michael Perry
"Every day I look outside and I say to myself: 'I get so sick to death of blue sky'," wrote farmer Mick in a recent book, "Tough Times", in which 10 country men talk about their fight with depression and thoughts of suicide.
"I just want to see some clouds and some rain," said Mick, who has lived on a small farm all his life.
"The strain is just so constant and long and it's like someone grabbing at me by the throat and slowly choking you a bit more each day."
A total of 2,213 Australians committed suicide in 2003, the latest available statistics. The vast majority were men.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says Australia has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, exceeding nations such as Canada, the United States and Britain.
While the rate of depression, which leads to suicide, is equal in urban and rural Australia, the rate of suicide per 100,000 people jumps more than 20 percent in the country.
In fact the more isolated the farmer the more chance he will resort to suicide, according to the Ministerial Council for Suicide Prevention.
"Rural suicide rates are one of the highest in the world," said Leonie Young, head of Beyondblue, a mental health group. Australia's rural suicide rate, 17 per 100,000 people, is above the national suicide rates of Canada and the United States.
The Land newspaper recently ran a drought headline -- "The cost: suicide every four days". There are around 1,000 suicides a year in rural Australia, just under 20 deaths a week.
NEW WAVE OF DEPRESSION
After surviving a catastrophic 2002-03 drought -- the worst in 100 years -- many farmers thought they'd never see such hardships again. Yet 2005 is shaping up as a return to those horror conditions, with dams bone-dry and sun-baked farmlands cracking.
Some farmers have had no income for several years and many rely on off-farm work to survive. Drought has wiped A$8 billion (US$6 billion) off agricultural production since 2002.
National farm debt has doubled in five years to A$40.3 billion, as farmers borrow each season to plant crops only to see them shrivel and die.
Cattle and sheep farmers have sent valuable livestock to slaughter because they can no longer afford to buy feed or water. That leaves them without vital breeding stock to rebuild their farms when the drought eventually breaks.
"It's no secret that many people are feeling the emotional strain of this devastating drought. In the last six weeks there has been another wave of depression," said Mal Peters, president of the New South Wales Farmers' Association.
"We are seeing some farmers commit suicide," he said.
Coral Russell has fought the despair of watching her beloved "Gunn Homestead" become a barren landscape. To cheer herself up recently she found a 1978 photo album which showed a lush, green landscape, with a bubbling creek running near her farmhouse.
"There are days when you just despair. This is beautiful country -- as long as you get the rain," Russell said from her 2,700-hectare (6,670-acre) wheat and sheep farm near Barellan, 400 km (250 miles) southwest of Sydney.
But Russell's heart goes out to the men who work the land.
"It is devastating for the men because they are not producing, not feeding their families," said Russell, who has started to hear stories of suicides on the "bush telegraph".
"There are farmers who are a worry because they stay at home, become unsociable and withdraw. They have no respite from it. It is frightening that it is cutting that deep into the lives of farmers," she said.
A new rural study has found that life on the land, once romanticised by Australia's great writers and poets as the backbone of the nation, is a virtual health hazard. Bush people are likely to die younger than city dwellers.
Some 300,000 rural people suffer from depression each year but mental health is a taboo subject in the outback and s