Guest blog by Aimée Makeham, RAMHP Coordinator
Think of the words ‘rural’, ‘farmer’, or ‘agriculture’. Now close your eyes and imagine a person who lives or works in rural communities or agriculture or is a farmer. I can almost guarantee the person behind your closed eyes is a male. Statistically, you’re not wrong, it was only in 1994 that the law was changed to allow women to legally claim to be ‘farmers’ and census data from 2016 indicated that women only made up 32% of the Australian agricultural workforce. While one third of all ‘farmers’ in Australia are female, there seems to be such a focus on rural male mental health that we tend to forget about the women living rurally and the challenges they may incur, regardless of whether their registered employment is as a ‘farmer’ or not.
We all know that males in Australia are more likely to die by suicide than females, yet we tend to forget that women have significantly higher rates of suicidal ideation, suicide plans and attempts than males. A review of literature by Daghagh Yazd, Wheeler and Zuo (2019) found that whilst farm women usually engaged in similar farm roles to males, mental health literature focuses primarily on male farmers.
They also found that female farmers tended to experience more psychological distress than males farmers, in part due to their combination of roles within the business (farm management/labour), household duties and the responsibility of child rearing. Other factors that play a role in increased emotional distress includes increased work hours for females, pesticide exposure, economic hardship and worrying about finances. And, while a lot of these aren’t necessarily only ‘female problems’, or even ‘farmer’s problems’, they are issues a lot of country women can relate to.
Anecdotally, we know that women are more likely to talk about their partner’s health than their own, and the research shows this as well. Yet, we often hear the phrases like ‘women talk’ and therefore, they have outlets for their emotional distress. ‘Men don’t talk’ which means we need to focus our attention on creating healthy, safe spaces for letting our feelings out – don’t get me wrong, we do need to create these spaces, but when the research indicates that women will talk about their partners before they talk about themselves and shows higher rates of emotional and psychological distress in females, it begs the questions ‘are we focusing enough on women’s mental health?’.
I have a controversial opinion. I don’t think female farmers or rural females are inspiring. Instead, they are the hard working and underappreciated glue that holds our small communities together. Country women work the land or the sea like any male farmer does. They might hold other forms of employment and they might be raising the kids of our future. They bake the cakes to be sold at fundraisers, they volunteer to ensure that our communities keep on keeping on. So, maybe it’s time we shone the light on the mental health status of rural females as well as rural males. Because without the ladies, our agricultural and rural communities would have some very large shoes to fill.