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Positive mental health key to tackling rural climate change

Grape growers are already suffering emotional stress because of climate change. ryanovineyards/Flickr

Mental health has been an issue in rural areas for the past few decades. Climate change will only add more stress to the lives of rural people.

While a report by the Climate Institute shows broad scale effects of climate change on mental health are likely in the future, our research is finding that farmers in vulnerable communities are suffering already.

Early findings from our study on key drivers of change in the wine industry found mental health was already affecting farmers’ decision making and capacity to act. We surveyed 50 winegrowers from southern Australia in March and April this year and will follow up with them again during the next three years.

A mental health problem that’s happening now

Grape growers are already experiencing the emotional impacts of climate variability and the perceived risks associated with future climate change.

Some are anxious about the future or about specific weather events (such as drought). Some are depressed about the viability of the industry in the future. Some are confused about the facts of climate science and sceptical that we can make a difference.

In addition, water policy changes, a national oversupply of grapes combined with a global economic down turn and international competition are starting to take their toll on grape growers’ mental resilience.

The stress that many grape growers are under can turn into more serious mental illnesses requiring treatment, or thoughts of suicide, if the problems are not addressed and the situation continues over a long time.

The suicide rate in rural Australia is already alarming, with some reports as high as one suicide per week. Mental health is a complex problem for farmers even without the added factor of climate change. Stress over a long period as a precondition for depression is emerging in the wine industry.

Not just farmers struggle; communities need help too

Farming communities in Australia are renowned for their tough characteristics and their ability to cope with the iconic volatility of Australian weather. Rural communities are also often tight-knit and supportive. They look out for one another.

Sense of community, strong networks and social capital are often high in rural communities. However, a reliance on “being tough” can also mean that rural communities don’t seek help when they need it.

Access to GPs can be difficult in rural areas, so even those who might seek help may not find it. The internet is a major source of information about mental health symptoms and treatment, so lack of access to a computer or high speed internet can also be a barrier.

Communities are dwindling because of downsizing, relocating for work or because young people are leaving. All these can make the general mood of communities less positive.

Taking action helps farmers cope

Some farmers in the grape growing community in Southern Australia are positive about their ability to respond to climate change. Some can even see potential benefits in early action.

These farmers are already starting to act, rather than waiting for winery mandates or government initiatives.

One example is a grower installing a “sun farm” to provide an alternative source of energy and a potential income stream. Other growers are planting Spanish varieties that are more drought and heat tolerant.

These farmers can brand their grapes as “sustainably produced”. That can be very appealing to wineries.

Other farmers are relocating to properties for grape growing in cooler, wetter areas to hedge against warming and drying climate trends.

“Long term planning gives you certainty. Especially when times are tough, you need to set yourself up long term and invest in the future,” one grape grower told us.

Taking action proactively can help to allay mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Making your own decisions about how to act rather than waiting for someone else to tell you what to do can be very empowering.

Finding the actions where there are ‘win-win’ outcomes also motivates further change as the multiple benefits of action become apparent. Examples like those above work to adapt to climate conditions and add a point of difference that is appealing to markets. In other cases, reducing inputs of chemicals, fertiliser and diesel saves money and also reduces carbon emissions.

Helping farmers find and set up ways to prepare their farms for a changing climate is the best way to create a positive frame of mind. Farmers dealing positively with climate change, will make a difference to our future environment.

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