There’s no arguing that rural communities in New South Wales have had it tough in recent years, being hit by drought, flood, bushfires, and now COVID-19.
But with the right amount of support and community engagement, support organisations hope these resilient towns will come out of the pandemic stronger than ever.
In March 2020, the last fire from one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons was extinguished, but the arrival of COVID-19 turned what should have been a time of recovery for rural communities into a time of increased stress and pressure.
People living in Australia’s cities and urban areas are well aware of the impact of the pandemic on our day-to-day lives: outbreaks and changing infection numbers, contact tracing, school, business and border closures, lockdowns, event cancellations, self isolation, testing, masks, social distancing, hand sanitiser and an array of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of infection in areas where people may come into close contact with one another.
But many of us have only a vague idea of how the pandemic has affected those living in our smaller communities and towns.
The pandemic has been experienced differently by those living in rural areas, with one of the key issues being the reduction in social interaction and access to routine community events, which are typically the lifeblood of more remote and rural communities.
Those living in rural areas have also been affected by border closures, which have impacted their businesses, as well as limiting access to health services and access to food supplies, which are not as readily replenished in rural areas as they are in city areas.
According to the Federal Department of Health, remote and rural communities are more vulnerable to mental illness than their urban counterparts due to limited access to services and support, isolation, and climate variability and change.
Years of drought, flash flooding and bushfires has made life for people in rural areas across New South Wales more difficult than ever, and the pandemic has only added to their stress.
Rural Aid is a rural charity that has been working to assist those in rural and farming areas to ensure their sustainability through a variety of natural disasters, by providing financial assistance, counselling services, and much-needed water and fodder for their animals.
Rural Aid CEO John Warlters said the impact of COVID-19 had been significant, and said the organisation was founded upon the very notion of providing assistance to rural and agricultural areas during challenging periods.
“Recovery is not easy; there’s still people doing it very tough in a lot of those impacted areas,” Mr Warlters said.
“Immediate attention is often given to the… images that capture the attention and emotive response from people, but the most important issue is the mental wellbeing… of individuals and their families,” he said.
Mr Warlters said the need for mental health support had increased since the pandemic and said while the recovery process would be different for every family, Rural Aid was committed to being as active as possible.
“We have a team of counsellors who provide support to [agricultural] producers and their families… by visiting them on their property… and when we can’t be on their property, our counsellors spend long periods of time on the phone,” he said.
“It’s an arm wrestle on occasion to have them reach out and say they need a bit of help because of their pride and belief that someone… needs it more than they do.”
Mr Warlters said he believed the road to renewal was only possible with good mental strength and said he had seen incredible resilience in rural communities.
“It’s inspirational the way people are able to respond under the most challenging of circumstances,” he said.
Physical and mental health services remain quite limited in rural areas, but many organisations including the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health (CRRMH) are working hard to let people know they are not alone.
CRRMH Rural Adversity Mental Health Program Manager Tessa Cummins said mental health literacy – which refers to having the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to identify mental health problems – was low in rural communities.
Ms Cummins said this meant people often didn’t recognise that their mental health was declining.
“The most common thing we see is the stress and anxiety that uncertainty creates, for example, [from] weather or natural disasters, and that’s what we’ve seen COVID-19 ramp up,” she said.
Ms Cummins said the strength of CRRMH lay in their ability to provide assistance for impacted districts not just at the point of crisis, but in the weeks and months that followed.
“Usually what we see is, in the six to eight-week period after a disaster… adrenaline wears off and people realise they need help,” she said.
“We’re out engaging with community members and… working with… various wellbeing and recovery committees to help rebuild the community, give people hope and continue to connect them to services and support.”
Ms Cummins said her team struggled at first to adapt to COVID-related social distancing restrictions.
She said although transitioning their services online was challenging, it was essential to ensure rural or impacted communities could continue to receive information on how to cope during the pandemic.
“With every challenge, we also see opportunity,” Ms Cummins said.
“We try and promote choice because getting help for your mental health [issues] is a very big step, and rural people should have the same degree of choice,” she said.
Mental Health Commission of NSW Deputy Commissioner Tim Heffernan said the bushfires in late 2019 and early 2020 had changed life dramatically for many people living in Southeast New South Wales, many of whom were struggling to rebuild, and said with the added stress of COVID-19, it was crucial to continue looking after the nation’s remote districts.
“When I look at the challenges, I also think of the incredible strength in those communities and the relationships within those communities, and the way they contribute to, and always have, to our Australian society,” Mr Heffernan said.
“We perhaps need to reframe… how critical they are to the way the rest of the country works,” he said.
“They’re an incredibly important part of the network that we need in Australia.”
Mr Heffernan said the biggest impact on rural towns came during the first lockdown period in April when many people lost access to face to face contact, as well as access to places they could go to for support, such as bars, restaurants, community meetings and events.
“People… need access to a range of different ways of reaching out,” he said.
“In terms of mental health, it’s about being connected, having something meaningful to do, it’s about having growth and positivity on the horizon.”
Like CRRMH, the NSW Mental Health Commission have had to adapt to communicating and providing services digitally, but Mr Heffernan said he was confident some changes would benefit his team and the community in the long term.
Like many organisations around Australia, the Commission’s team shifted from working full time in the office to working from home thanks to COVID-19.
“The good thing [to come out of COVID-19] will be that people will have built into their jobs the capacity to work from home for… two or three days of the week,” he said.
“I think that can have a significant impact on their ability to be with their family and do things that matter to them.”
NSW Rural Doctors Network CEO and Chief Executive Richard Colbran said there were significant learnings that could be taken away from the challenging situations rural communities are facing, such as natural disasters and COVID-19 and its associated restrictions.
“We can… learn from this and prepare for the future in terms of not just the response, but also the recovery approach to natural disaster and emergency,” he said.
Mr Colbran said he believed the principle essence behind the Rural Doctors Network was the motivation to ensure access to quality healthcare for people across all regions, including those working in healthcare themselves.
“Everybody, no matter where they live, should have the right to access the highest quality healthcare possible,” he said.
Mr Colbran said it was important to ensure that healthcare workers, who may themselves also be affected by the natural disasters affecting their local communities, were properly supported, as their jobs required great emotional strength.
“We’re seeing tremendous mental… and emotional distress for our health workers… who are putting themselves at a personal, professional risk every hour, and our job is to make sure they’re safe and capable,” he said.
“The pressures have been enormous; not only are they dealing with the professional pressures of trying to support communities that are under serviced and under resourced, but they also have their own personal stuff they’re dealing with.”
For more information on how you can seek mental health support as a farmer or resident in a rural area, please visit Rural Aid, the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health or the NSW Mental Health Commission.