APS member, Stuart Rennie, is a senior psychologist working for Centrelink who was recently engaged on a project for the Rural and Climate Change Branch. The project was part of the Federal Government's Murray-Darling Basin - Additional Servicing Support initiative to provide psychological support to farmers, farm families, small business and rural communities affected by drought. Over 70 per cent of Australia's irrigation resources are concentrated in the Murray-Darling Basin, producing 40 per cent of the nation's food. In 2006 the Basin suffered its second driest season since 1900. Almost 95 per cent of the divertible water in the Murray-Darling Basin is removed for agricultural irrigation. With this irrigation water significantly reduced from July 2007, the Government moved to increase support services in the region. The initiative included provision for Centrelink to recruit professionals into the region, including psychologists.

What was your role in this initiative?

The rural psychology service under this initiative offered three broad activities: to provide counselling and therapy to individuals, couples and groups affected by drought; to help build individual and community capacity through community development; and to provide mental health education to drought-affected communities.

This provided a ‘who' and a ‘what', but not a ‘how', which was one of the great strengths of my role. Fundamentally we were working from the ground up, using a logic framework, with the government's social inclusion agenda as its pinnacle. The ‘how' was very much driven by the community, with flexibility and responsiveness key to the approach. Whether it was facilitating a tiny community to come together and overcome the fragmentation that stalled their progress, discussing (with a female audience) how farming men deal with their stress, or undertaking a qualitative research project on a struggling community town, the activities were not imposed on the community. The community identified their needs, and Centrelink responded.

What are your psychological impressions of drought-affected rural communities?

My impressions mirror those found in the literature. The stoicism is evident, the resilience palpable, and small rural communities continue to do their best to move forward. However the changing nature of our climate increasingly impacts on farm families and rural communities. Global pressures on commodities, successive droughts and changing market demands continue to add pressure to family units trying hard to retain their farming lifestyle.

In mental health terms, we see increases in rates of depression, rural suicide and anecdotal reports of increases in alcohol abuse, domestic violence and relationship breakdown in rural areas. The pressure to perform and to sustain a productive farm has never been more intense. Rural resilience is tested again and again.

The financial strain is considerable. State and Federal governments provide income support, grants, subsidies and other social and emotional supports. With hard working (but often tired) volunteers, communities' strive to improve their infrastructure and maximise social and economic participation. Feverish grant writing, community fundraising, local agricultural shows or field days are some of the examples of rural communities' resolve and creativity. Sitting still is not an option.

The fabric of small rural communities continues to change as quickly as the practice of farming. Though communities endeavour to retain their culture and spirit, the economic climate imposes an irrepressible reality that threatens to change communities forever. Long-term ‘locals', once the drivers of community activity, leave town or seek work away from the community. Urban people move into the towns to take up cheap housing. The demography alters. The culture changes and spirit wavers. The community's challenge is to instil in its ‘new' inhabitants the same sense of pride, energy and enthusiasm. In a large urban area, the flow of the population ‘wave' waxes and wanes without great disturbance. In a small rural community, the impact of this ‘wave' is felt more keenly.

The impression with perhaps the most resonating impact from a psychological perspective is generational conflict associated with farm succession planning. The variation in farm succession planning is staggering. Some families put plans into place early, some delay until retirement, when succession planning is triggered by factors outside their control. Farms businesses are complex. So too are family relationships. It's difficult to separate the family from the business. Unfortunately some families spend money on succession planning, only to come away from the process without a plan in place! This highlights the significant role family dynamics, relationships, expectations, fears, uncertainties, hopes and dreams all play in the succession process. The most concerning families are the ones that avoid the process because of the difficult family conversations needed. Given the increasing number of farms facing uncertain futures, there is a role for psychologists to play in helping farm families plan for and meet their future needs.

Are psychological services having an impact in rural settings?

The rural psychology role in Centrelink taught us that the psychology profession still has much to do in rural Australia. Whilst mental health education has begun to seep into rural communities, issues of access to psychological services, isolation and acceptance remain. In terms of access, my experience has been that alternative channels of psychological assistance (e.g., telephone, e-counselling) are not well supported in rural areas. In addition to issues of channel preference, technology limitations (e.g., broadband access) impact on service capability and reliability.

Access and isolation are not necessarily the major obstacles. Rural people are intensely private, fiercely independent and resilient to a fault. Educating rural people of the value of psychological services is but a starting point. Convincing them of the value of the service depends as much on the levels of trust they afford you, as it does on any logical persuasion! So even if every town with a population of 500 or more had close access to psychological services, unless the service was credible, reliable and sustainable, there are no guarantees the psychology service would be utilised.

So how do you make psychological services more attractive to rural people?

One of the major strengths of my role in this initiative was the capacity to provide outreach. It might surprise many metropolitan readers to learn that Centrelink has two mobile offices that take government services to rural towns. Centrelink also employs Rural Services Officers who provide outreach to farmers regarding payments, products and services. As rural psychologists with this initiative, we too had the capacity to see farmers on their farms. Rural people have an overwhelming preference for face-to-face service. There was also value in this for us, as we witnessed the harsh impact of drought first hand. Such outreach capacity was well received by rural people. It helped them to feel like they mattered to government.

Similar difficulties exist for both private practitioners and organisations in providing outreach services. However, cost effectiveness is a major consideration: too expensive for the client to travel in, too expensive for the psychologist to travel out. As a society, providing face-to-face outreach psychological services to isolated rural communities will only be seen as cost effective when the value of ‘reaching out' is acknowledged.

The Centrelink rural psychologists discovered that rural people responded positively to the psychological support they received. Whether a formal presentation, workshop, family consultation, community meeting or simply a frank and honest chat, the fact they received professional support in their community made a difference. If the psychologist developed a community presence, ‘connected' with rural people and built solid relationships with other stakeholders, the chances for positive impact increased.

What professional skills have been most valuable in this role?

The role required clinical, counselling and therapeutic skills. It required an understanding of human behaviour in rural communities. It demanded empathy for the plight of our farmers and a respect for the farmers' identity with the land. It required a conceptual framework that included the terms change, transition, attachment, resilience, learning, family and lifestyle.

Resilience is often touted as one of the strengths of rural people (and communities) given the barriers and challenges they face: the stoic ‘she'll be right' attitude; the familiar comment about neighbours having a worse time of things; the reluctance to accept help. It is possible that rural people ‘soldier on' because there is no practical alternative. We are possibly at risk of ignoring their needs simply because of this perceived ‘resilience'.

What did you gain personally from your involvement in drought-affected communities in this role?

The rural work in drought-affected communities was without question the most rewarding professional role of my career. It challenged me to work in creative, flexible and lateral ways, in response to community need. It ignited a seemingly ‘dormant‘ passion for supporting rural people, so much so that though the project has ended, I continue to volunteer my time for two rural sub-projects. Rural people and drought-affected communities have been inspirational.

In terms of the role I had within the initiative, a number of things seem clearer: as a professional how critical it is to build strong working relationships in these communities; the palpable divide between urban and rural communities in terms of service access; and the importance of ‘values' in rural service delivery, particularly that of trust. A little help does go a long way!

In terms of my impressions of those who live ‘on the land', I was struck by how much the land is part of their identity. For farming males for example, it has been my experience that farm productivity and self esteem share a linear relationship: when farm productivity is high, self worth and confidence skyrockets. However when productivity is low, as in drought years, the farmer is prone to self doubt, and can question his capabilities as a farmer, even though it is not his fault. The impact of the drought is felt deeply and personally. Any professional who works with farmers needs to comprehend the depth of their emotional attachment to the land. It's a very powerful motivator.

I am fortunate to have been afforded an opportunity by Centrelink to work in these drought-affected rural communities. I am immensely grateful for the time spent working with people so passionate, committed, respectful and resilient. Variety is the spice of life!

InPsych August 2010