Drought increases rural suicide and climate change will worsen drought

New research has shown that suicide increases during drought among men in rural Australian communities, and the problem may be exacerbated due to climate change.

Our findings call for urgent adaptation plans and global action to mitigate climate change and avoid impacts on vulnerable communities that risk worsening natural hazards.

Read more: Farmer suicide isn’t just a mental health issue

What did our study find?

Looking at drought data and suicide data from 1971 to 2007, we found that suicides among rural working-age men increase as drought worsens.

We then used this correlation to calculate the number of deaths that could be attributed to drought each month over the 37-year study period.

We used this statistic to calculate a total number of suicides, and since some years are drought years and some are not, we calculated an annual average figure. We found that on average each year, 1.8% of suicides among rural working-age men could be attributed to drought.

We sought to quantify the risks of climate change in potential future scenarios, and its association with mental health impacts.

We compared three climate models for New South Wales available from the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, which estimated rainfall per month between 2006 and 2100. The three models ranged from the hottest and driest scenario to a low warming and more humid scenario.

Using the same method as above to calculate drought-related suicides for each of the climate change scenarios, we showed that the average annual number of drought-related suicides in the driest future scenario would increase to 3, 3%.

All three scenarios showed increased levels of drought and suicide, with the weaker/wetter warming scenario increasing the proportion to around 2%.

Increased suicide rates during drought are observed among working-age men in rural areas.

Read more: Bushfires, drought, COVID: why the mental health of rural Australians is taking a hit

Managed retirement is an option

Fourteen years ago, the federal government sponsored the Garnaut Climate Change Review, which investigated the effects of climate change on mental health in rural Australia. This report raised the troubling concept of a “planned and orderly community shutdown”.

He noted that for some high-risk rural communities, the potential downturns in farming could be so significant that farming might not be feasible. Extraordinary adaptation would be required as communities might have to alter the composition of their industrial base to largely exclude agriculture or move away from it altogether.

There are precedents in Australia, including in farming and mining communities, of abandoning towns and farms. Best known is the decline of agriculture north of the Goyder Line in South Australia in the 1880s, driven by a decade-long boom followed by drought and falling wheat prices.

Abandoned mining infrastructure
There are precedents for the abandonment of mining and agricultural towns.

A forced retirement is a tragedy. Is it possible to design a planned and managed closure of such communities? Could this help prevent adverse mental health effects from climate change, or does it produce a different set of problems?

This dilemma is increasingly relevant globally, including for many low-lying coastal regions and small island developing states such as the Pacific Islands. Not only is sea level rising, but also the rate of its rise.

Read more: Drop in suicide among young men hides rise in remote areas

Although adaptation in the form of dykes allows millions of Dutch people to continue living below sea level, such a response cannot be scaled up to the scale required. Sea level rise is already a reality in many Pacific communities, affecting drinking water and agriculture through saltwater intrusion into groundwater aquifers and erosion and loss of land through flooding.

Mitigating climate change is the best option

It is clear that careful attention to interventions such as agricultural and urban planning is an important part of adapting to climate change. We must avoid putting people in danger. However, we should also devote more effort to mitigation in order to avoid the worst scenarios of climate change altogether.

Governments should ensure that we avoid runaway global warming through stronger national policies on reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere while pursuing adaptation strategies such as investments that also strengthen the climate resilience of vulnerable communities. This would have the co-benefit of preventing the public health burden from climate change, of which suicides are just one example.

If this article has caused you any problems, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Teresa H. Sadler