Farmer Scott Cooper and his daughter Charlie ride their horses along a fence in a drought-affected paddock on their property nam
FILE - Farmer Scott Cooper and his daughter Charlie ride their horses along a fence in a drought-affected paddock on their property named "Nundah," south of the central New South Wales town of Gunnedah in Australia, July 21, 2018.

SYDNEY - Advocates are warning of an “epidemic” of mental health problems and suicide among Australian farmers. Isolation, financial pressures and the impact of drought are all part of the problem. 

Seven days a week, Joe Meggetto is up before dawn on his dairy farm near the town of Warragul, 100 kilometers southeast of Melbourne in southern Australia.

He is the son of Italian migrants. He’s tough and hard working, but for years he has battled the demons of mental illness.

“I used to carry a bullet around in my pocket and I remember talking to my brother one day on the road just here, I was bringing the cows home on the road and I was talking to him and I was angry at the time and I kept this bullet in my pocket all the time,” he said. “And I got the bullet out and said to my brother — I showed it to him — and I said one day I’m going to bloody blow my head off, you know. I was really down in the dumps and by that afternoon I was milking the cows and before I knew it there were two policemen at the milking shed and they pulled me out of the shed and they had a bit of a talk and before I knew it the guns were seized.”

Counseling, support from the community and small doses of medication have helped Joe to fight his mental illness. Advocates believe much more needs to be done to help those struggling to cope on Australian farms.

Higher suicide rates

Suicide rates for male farm workers are reported to be twice those for the general population.

Lia Bryant is an associate professor from the University of South Australia.

FILE - A menu board at Sydney's Old Fitzroy Hotel displays the slogan 'Parma for a Farmer', meaning that sales of the dish will result in proceeds going to farmers in Australia's parched interior for drought relief, in Sydney, Aug. 9, 2018.

She believes that capitalism disadvantages those on the land because it takes power away from individual farmers and puts it into the hands of big corporations, who control the prices producers receive.

“I think it is imperative we turn away from that concept of mental ill-health and think about our context of our policies, our state government policies, our federal government policies — we think about how corporate agriculture functions and challenge that, and most importantly we challenge capitalism, and the way it constructs the farmer and takes away, strips the autonomy of the farmer and produces distress,” she said.

Researchers also say that unprecedented weather events across Australia have had a “clear and devastating” impact on the mental health of many people, not just farmers. Droughts, bushfires and floods have caused the loss of homes, land and livelihoods.

Australia is the world’s driest inhabited continent. Last summer was the hottest ever recorded.