By Katrina Cavanough
The cruelty of life is felt most with the absence of hope. What follows is an account of life from the eyes of one of my rural clients.
As his eyelids opened, the heat of the new day was already shining through the window. “Oh I’m still here,” he thought as he sat up in his bed. His mind went to a time before when he had felt free, when he could sit on the back verandah at lunch, smell the freshness in the air and plan the afternoon of jobs.
“I used to think I had too much work to do around here. I used to think that life was so stressful. That was nothing, Not compared to this.”
Overwhelmed once again, Clint* put his head in his hands and the knot in his stomach, the feeling of dread that consumed him, seeped down through the rest of his body.
He felt the anguish gnaw away within him. He felt the craziest desire to leap out of now and not feel like this any more. The dread. The fear. But there was no way out. No way out.
Somehow, he got dressed, and walked out into the kitchen to find Julie. Taking a moment, he watched her make a cup of tea, dangling the tea bags just a bit too long. She stood leaning against the kitchen sink and he watched her sigh.
“ Good morning, love.” His words opened the silence of her morning routine; their eyes met and ever so briefly, before they had a chance to mask their reality, fear met fear.
There was nothing he could do.
Years ago, when I sat on the phone lines as a community worker in a small rural community, I listened as this hard-working farmer told me this story. He told me how “he could see it in her eyes too”, that it was “just too much” and that he had tried everything but the drought was the worst so far. He told me how the bloke up the road, his mate and neighbour, had sold the last of the cattle on his property then shot himself.
He told me it was hopeless. And the truth was, until the rain came, it was. Farming, his livelihood, was lost.
Right now, there are men and women on the land in the same situation. Stories have been firing across the media this week about the extent of this drought. Our farmers and their families have no way of making a living and there is absolutely nothing they can do to change the situation. They are literally drowning in the drought. They are feeling overwhelmed and their mental health is suffering.
In 2007, then chief executive of beyondblue, Leonie Young, quoted the following research findings in a statement: “In Australia, approximately one male farmer dies from suicide every four days.”**
Although these statistics are from an older study, suicide in our rural communities is happening often and these sort of numbers can be substantiated.
These are massive figures. And for each person that dies there are hundreds of others affected by their death. In my work as a therapist and social worker over the past 20 years, I have sat with many widows and mothers as they have sobbed, wept and grieved for their husbands and their sons – the grief that follows suicide is laced with the deepest of despair, anger and guilt. The family that is left behind lives on forever with a sense of “If only”. And that never really goes away.
The therapist in me wants to help. And hopefully this article will in some way help the men and women who are facing the struggle just to get bread on the table. I know they are suffering and, while we can’t make it rain, it is important to bring the struggle into the light, reach out our arms of support and offer all we can.
What can we do? Here are my thoughts…
Talk, talk and then talk some more
We all know that our farmers are some of the most stoic members of the Australian community. Sharing feelings is seen as a weakness and as a form of “whinging”. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “Well there is nothing I can do about it, why go on about it?” I would be a very wealthy woman.
But I am hopeful that the younger generation might be changing.
It is time to find another way. It is time to get the message across that talking is OK. If we all make a commitment to talk, talk and talk some more about the drought and what it feels like to be lost in despair and fearing the future, then it breaks the silence and helps everyone to feel less alone.
The same goes for suicide. It is natural to think that it is better “not to mention it” for fear of planting the idea in someone’s mind. But best practice in mental health requires you to ask the question. I have asked this question countless of times.
It is a tough one, yet something really powerful can happen when you ask: “Do you feel like killing yourself?” In that moment one of two things will happen. The person who is not suicidal will tell you “No, I wouldn’t do that, no way.” But the people who have been thinking about the idea of suicide are often relieved that someone has asked and noticed. I have never known this question to be a waste of time. I have never in all my 20 years met anyone who is offended by it.
What if someone says “Yes, I have been thinking about wanting to die”
If your friend or loved one says they have considered suicide, try to stay as calm and matter-of-fact as you can. It’s OK if you don’t. You are human and your response will not increase or decrease your loved one’s feelings of distress. To stay as calm as possible is just the ideal.
If you can, offer a reply that lets them know that this feeling is completely understandable given their situation. “Well it’s understandable that you are feeling like that when everything is such tough going at the moment.”
The next step is to get them to a GP or even the emergency department at the local hospital. It is time for them to get professional help. A GP or mental health professional will assess the level of risk they are to themselves.
If the person does not want to get professional help, then you have a few other options. If they are at imminent risk, call an ambulance or the police.
If they are describing their thoughts and feelings, you can give them the phone numbers listed below but it’s crucial that you also tell someone else. You can, for example, phone one of the numbers listed below and seek their advice. They are the experts and will guide you through the next best steps for your situation.
Do not keep it to yourself
Even if your friend or loved one has asked you to keep it a secret, and even if you have agreed with them, this is the one time when it is OK not to keep their confidence.
Secrets, keeping confidences and “You won’t tell anyone will you?” do not apply to situations of self-harm and suicide. It is crucial that you tell someone. Please refer to the numbers below, call one of them, phone your local community health centre or speak to your own GP. Hand it over to the professionals, then you will know that you have done all you can.
Reach out for help
If someone you love has committed suicide, you may be experiencing a myriad of emotions. Please know that there is no right way or wrong way to grieve. You may be experiencing the loss in a different way to other members of your family – and that is OK.
Reach out and get some help. However, the one proviso I will place on this is to take the time to find a therapist/counsellor that best fits you. You may need to meet a few counsellors before you find the right one, and that is OK. You are, after all, going to share some of the most sacred parts of yourself with this person.
- Beyondblue (depression & anxiety): 1300 224 636
- Lifeline suicide & crisis support: 13 11 14
- Black Dog Institute: http://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au
- SANE Australia helpline: 1800 18 7263
- Headspace: 1800 65 0890
- Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
You can help
A national drought appeal was launched for NSW farmers this week. To find out more and to donate see:
***Nearly 60 per cent of NSW has been drought-declared, and farmers and their families across the state are struggling to survive. A recent NSW farmers survey has reported:
- 86% of famers are hand-feeding livestock.
- A quarter of farmers have run out of their own water supplies.
- 5% of farming families don’t have household water
* Name has been changed
** Research findings published in: Page A, Fragar ‘Suicide in Australian Farming’ Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 2002
***Commonwealth Bank Drought Appeal Website
Katrina Cavanough is a renowned therapist and life strategist, and a spirituality and intuition coach on Balance by Deborah Hutton. Katrina is also a published author, speaker and lover of life, and was featured on Channel Seven’s 2011 series The One. Katrina has been heard on radio across Australia and is a regular guest on ARN’s national Body + Soul Radio. She has also been heard on 2DayFM’s Kyle & Jackie O Show, MIX106.5FM, Illawarra’s i98fm, 96.5 WaveFM, Lismore’s 2LT and StarFM Shepparton. She has been featured in Holistic Bliss magazine, New Idea, Take 5, That’s Life, TV Week and InSpirit magazine.
Her first book, Wisdom For Your Life (Allen & Unwin), is now available in Australia and New Zealand and is due to be released in the US and Canada in April.
Katrina’s new CD for children, Happy Little Hearts, a health and healing meditation (published by Blue Angel Publishing) is available now in 15 countries across the globe.