Monday, May 21, 2018

Farmer suicides in Australia, old news down under but now in the New York Times

The New York Times today includes a long-ish feature story on farmer suicides in Australia.  The headline is "A Booming Economy with a Tragic Price," which hints at the story's inequality and globalization angles, but not the mental health/rural services angle which is also a key component of this excellent reporting:
Family farms like Mr. Guy’s [who committed suicide in 2016] have been the producers of Australia’s agricultural bounty, and the bedrock of its self-image as a nation of proudly self-reliant types, carving a living from a vast continent. But as Australia’s rural economy has boomed on the back of growing exports, small farmers have not always shared in the bounty, with many forced into borrowing money or selling their farms.
This is old news "down under," according to my Aussie friends, and I've seen some coverage of similar trends in the United States, as here and here.  (This is also reminiscent of the deaths of despair associated with rural folks in the U.S., though in Australia it is men who are disproportionately dying). One reason, it seems, that this trend is now attracting so much attention in the NYT (this is part I of II in the NYT, on "Regional Australia," a term used to connote "rural" in that nation) is the family murder-suicide that occurred a few weeks ago in Western Australia.

Here's a further sobering, data-dense excerpt from Jacqueline Williams' feature story in the NYT:
Nationwide, people living in remote Australia now take their own lives at twice the rate of those in the city: Every year, there are about 20 suicide deaths per 100,000 people in isolated rural areas, compared with 10 in urban communities, according to independent studies of local health figures.
In very remote parts of the country, the figure is closer to 23, the studies say.
Data out of the state of Queensland are even worse, also indicating that the more remote the farmer, the higher the suicide risk.  

Williams then takes up that which differentiates what is happening in Australia from what is happening in other nations where farmers are experiencing higher rates of suicide:
[T]he crisis seems to be worsening at a time when, at least on paper, the [Australian] rural economy is quite robust.
* * * 
There is a painful irony here, they say, since Australia has embraced free trade in farm goods, and even pressed other nations to liberalize their markets, in the belief that agriculture is one of its most competitive industries. 
And Australian farm exports are growing: Last year, they totaled 44.8 billion Australian dollars, or $33.5 billion, up more than a fifth from just six years earlier, according to the National Farmers Federation. 
But many experts say the biggest beneficiaries are larger corporate farms. Family farms are less able to ride out fluctuations in far-flung global markets that can drive down prices of their crops while raising the cost of tractor fuel. 
 So, neoliberalism does a number down under, too.

As I hinted above, this story also includes important information on the dearth of services in rural Australia, and how mental health services are being delivered there--sometimes in innovative fashion.  The story is well worth a read in its entirety.                                                                         

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