Dry weather is cracking more than just the soil in rural areas, and a drought community forum in Gunnedah on Wednesday aimed at bringing deeper issues to light.
Challenge Community Services is hosting a series of forums around the region to help people cope with tough times caused by drought.
“It’s about raising awareness around the impact drought is having not only on the individual, but on the community as a whole,” Challenge Community Services therapeutic services manager Kylie Boyraz said.
“It is about getting people to have the discussion, and people are now ready to have some really tricky discussions.”
Ms Boyraz said the forums helped identify the impact drought could have on families and relationships.
The sessions are held by Simon Santosha, from Men and Family Counselling and Consultancy, who had his first taste of how difficult it was to reach the people who needed help in 1998.
Mr Santosha said he was studying his counsellor’s degree during the time of dairy industry deregulation, a time when men, in particular, in the industry were suffering from enormous stress.
“We started the Northern Rivers Counselling Crisis Line and we didn’t get any calls,” he said.
“We had to think about how to connect with blokes.
“We started the Northern Rivers Men’s Peer Support Line, and suddenly, we got all these calls.
“For some it was this thing that a man feels he is failing his family – his wife and his children and his legacy, his parents and grandparents, because he can’t keep up with the farm.
“They are in isolated homes and they start to work more, start to drink more and start to have thoughts about self harm.
“They would be much more comfortable talking to a voice at the end of a phone than talking to their partner.”
Mr Santosha has continued to work with men and families in crisis since that time, and said these days, it was recognised that men are four times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Yesterday’s event in Gunnedah attracted only four people – none of them men, although Mr Santosha said indications were most of the forums would have a much larger audience.
“For me, it would be a success if people in this room are able to talk about how drought impacts on families and how we relate to each other – and how to build on that,” he said.
Mr Santosha said many farmers would be reluctant to leave the farm work in the middle of the day to go to a forum in town.
But he had words of advice for women who were starting to feel concern about their partner.
“A woman might say ‘my bloke’s not travelling well’, but guys won’t say they are depressed,” he said.
“If they are isolating – spending more and more time away with the tractor, starting to drink more and starting to be more grumpy and angry, all this says he’s not travelling well.
“If men are going off to work in the paddock and they are churning in the guts and have tightness in the chest, they should come and have a bit of a chat.”
He said climate change could mean that it was time to change the way we thought about drought, and that farmers might have to get used to “periods of prolonged dryness” and start looking at ways to adapt.
“This is helping rural families understand the management of change,” Mr Santosha said.
“Moving away from the farm can be a massive grieving process, but a lot of them are moving off the farm for periods of time.”
People who would like telephone counselling, referrals to support organisations or information on drought relief events and news can ring Challenge Community Services on 1800 795 441.