The reasons why the rate of suicide among Australian farmers outstrips most other occupations will be investigated by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention.
“Farming is a physically stressful job with a high rate of injury,” researcher Dr Allison Milner says.
“There are also social stresses involved. It’s not a job that someone can conveniently get away from, so there is often an overspill between work life and home life which can be hard to delineate.”
Researchers from AISRAP at Griffith University’s Mt Gravatt campus will team up with the Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health NSW, which is aligned with the University of Newcastle, for the three-year study.
An AISRAP study completed in 2010 showed farmers among three occupation groups with significantly higher risk of male suicide, alongside transport and construction workers.
Suicide rates among Australian farmers were between 1.5 and 2.2 times higher than suicide rates among the general population, an occupational study between 1997 and 2002 has shown.
More recent evidence indicates that the suicide rate among Queensland’s agricultural workers, numbering farmers, farm managers, farm hands and shearers, was over twice the rate of the general employed population.
“What past investigations have not done is establish why,” Dr Milner says.
She said the research will analyse environmental factors affecting where farmers live, and will examine occupation as a factor separate to mental illness.
Financial stress, global environmental changes and how mining-related activities like coal seam gas exploration affect life in the agricultural sector will also be studied.
“All of these relationships (to farmer suicide) have been hypothesised before. We will seek to establish evidence that explains the high suicide rate in this area.
“Specifically, we will look at what factors have precipitated death, including interviews with next of kin of the deceased about their experiences preceding death.”
The research will also consider closely the sustained period of time leading to death and ask if help could have been sought or provided.
“There appears to be an attitude among farmers not to seek help because of a perceived stigma associated with looking for help.
“We will investigate the attitudes of farmers towards suicide and towards seeking help. We will look at what help is appropriate to the community and whether it is accessible.”
The research project is set to start after funding from the Australian Research Council was confirmed earlier this month.
The work will be carried out in collaboration with industry partners Queensland Health, Office of the State Coroner (Queensland), Department of Communities (Queensland), Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health Queensland, Hunter New England Local Health Network and New England Division of General Practice.
“Our industry partners will play a key role in identifying agricultural communities where we can carry out this research,” Dr Milner said.