Deakin University professor to unveil study into managing the stress of farming in difficult times

21 September 2010

Some of the strategies used by farmers to help them cope with the stresses of tough times on the land are being documented in a new research project led by a Deakin University Warrnambool Campus academic.

Deakin’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (Rural and Regional) Professor Sue Kilpatrick is the lead researcher in the project that covers fishing, mixed farming, cotton, grains and sugar and involves case studies from around Australia.

Preliminary findings from her study, ‘I feel like I’m dancing on the Titanic’ – managing the stress of farming in difficult times, which takes its title from a quote from a farmer interviewed as part of the research, will be presented at the National Centre for Farmer Health’s conference in Hamilton on 12 October.

Professor Kilpatrick hopes that documenting the strategies will help to give guidance to other farmers.

“No one has researched this before. Research has looked at people who are ill but there is very little literature on preventative behaviours that farmers use to help themselves through difficult times,” she said.

“In recent years there has been an accumulation of factors which are having a particularly severe impact upon rural Australia resulting in a decline in mental health of farmers, including isolation, drought, the global financial crisis, increased government regulations and a widening of the schism between urban and rural Australia.

“Psychological well being is often adversely impacted through the stress of difficult times.”

Professor Kilpatrick said the research project investigated processes used by farmers and fishers to achieve and maintain good physical and mental health in ‘difficult times’.

She said there was an increasing awareness within farming communities of the importance of mental health issues. Strategies discussed by farmers include trying to stay positive and not worry, compartmentalising difficult decisions, having good social support and networks, having regular medical check-ups, recognising the importance of off-farm pursuits and interests, and good nutrition and physical activity.

“Staying healthy in difficult times is vital, and the strategies used by farmers and their families can usefully inform health policies and practices,” Professor Kilpatrick added.

Rural people are viewed as being ‘at risk’ more than their urban counterparts, and less likely to engage in preventive health behaviours.

However, she said the recent focus on poorer health in rural areas had meant that programs to encourage physical activity and diet, particularly directed at people working in rural industries, have been funded by governments. “Similarly mental health programs have been supported, as there has been increased recognition of the mental health problems associated with farming in difficult times in rural Australia.”

Professor Kilpatrick said many participants in the study discussed how mental health issues were of greater concern to them than their capacity to achieve good physical health. “As one cotton grower said: ‘I’m actually probably more worried about my state of mind than I am about my physical health…I feel a bit like I’m waltzing on the Titanic’. This illustrates participants’ feelings about not being able to control the conditions under which they worked, including environmental conditions and government policies and procedures.”

She said the findings suggested a commitment to achieving and maintaining good health that is not evident in the literature on rural health, where risk factors, behaviours and poorer outcomes are emphasised.

“There was a high level of acknowledgement of the stress of difficult times, but alongside this ran the theme of the importance of acting to reduce stress. The emphasis on sociability and relaxation were important strategies for health.”

Professor Kilpatrick said the results of each case study were still being analysed and a final report on the research would be released next year. “However, it is good timing to release and discuss some of the preliminary findings at the National Centre for Farmer Health’s conference which will be an important event in looking at research, policy and personal stories relating to farmer health.”

The inaugural conference is following the theme `Opening the Gates on Farmer Health’ and will be held 11-13 October at the Hamilton Performing Arts Centre.

News facts
  • Study looks at strategies Australian farmers and fishers use to cope with stress during tough times
  • Preliminary findings show mental health of greater concern than physical health
  • Emphasis on sociability and relaxation as strategies for good health

Media contact

Mandi O'Garretty
Deakin Media Relations
03 5227 2776; 0418 361 890

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21st September 2010