Mental health in rural and remote Australia: An insider’s look

Allan Sparkes is Deputy Commissioner of the Mental Health Commission of New South Wales. He’s had to face his own mental health demons throughout his life, suffering from two debilitating mental illnesses for more than a decade which developed during his former Police career.

Having served for 20 years as a frontline police officer, Allan is the only Australian to be awarded Australia’s highest civil award – the Cross of Valour and a subsequent Australian Bravery Decoration, the Commendation for Brave Conduct.

Allan recalls that “life was great, I was very successful with my work and was playing sport at a pretty high level, I had great relationships with friends, my wife and daughter and there really was nothing to complain about.”

However, the pressure of Allan’s police work mounted and after being involved in a number of catastrophic events in succession, he developed chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and became suicidal.

“I had a never ending playing of events in my mind about the things that I had seen and been involved with at work. Whether it was during the daytime or at night, I couldn’t close my eyes to go to sleep,” he said.

Thankfully, Allan sought professional help and was able to recover from his illness.

Following his recovery, Allan became a Beyond Blue Ambassador, where he works with those suffering  with mental health problems and depression in rural and remote areas around Australia.

Allan grew up in a small rural town, and spent time working as a jackaroo, a wool presser and a shearer. He has maintained strong ties with his central western hometown, and having seen the enormous shifts that have taken place in the farming industry over the years, Allan can see the difficulties that come with living in remote areas.

From his experience working with farming communities, Allan sees diminishing social connections in a world of technological advancements as a huge contributing factor to the depression and mental health struggles in rural and remote Australia.

“About 50 years ago, most farms were run by families with the addition of one, possibly two other families living and working together on the farm,” Allan said.

“Each farm had its own unique community and there were always people who lived on the land, which immediately created a social dimension to farming and a support network.”

Now, however, “many communities are finding that farm workers are no longer needed and the synergy that once existed has disappeared,” Allan said.

“The core of small farming communities has been essentially ripped out and people are left feeling unconnected and stressed.”

To compound the issue, farmers who survive are often left to work in isolation, sometimes going days without seeing another person.

“This puts a huge amount of pressure on the individual. Nowadays, farmers often don’t have anyone to work with, solve problems with or share in the distress that comes with losing crops, drought, shifting weather patterns, inconsistent prices, ever rising costs and ever lowering of profit margins.”

“This kind of isolation, combined with the nature of the work itself and the current economic reality for farmers, can make it easy to feel a sense of hopelessness and an acute fear for their future and the future of their farms and family life.”

Listening and encouraging engagement among community members is particularly important within rural communities, along with asking the “why” question and identifying triggers.

“We know that statistically, rural and remote areas do have a higher rate of suicide and a higher rate of mental illness,” he said.

Allan encourages members of rural and remote communities to take the time to ask the following questions of their neighbours: what do you need to make things better? What can we as a community do to help you? Is our communication, as a community, good enough?

Generally, if communities look at the “why” factor then perhaps they can start to give people the skills and tools they need to be able to take care of themselves, their partners and their mates during a time of crisis.

“It is important that people in our rural communities are educated about the impact their work environment is having on them” Allan said.

“Even a simple program about the correlation between poor sleep and excess alcohol consumption in leading to depression and anxiety can be a major step forward in reducing the incidence of burnout amongst those working in this environment.

Allan noted that “we have to educate and inform so people can be proactive and empowered to take care of their own health.”

“While farmers have always been acknowledged and respected for their exceptional ability to survive, they deserve to be given every bit of information and knowledge that is available, to assist them to continue the way of life that is critical to our society as a whole.”