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Study: Climate change causing farmers mental anguish

"Farmers have always worried about the weather but today that worry is becoming detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing," researcher Neville Ellis said.

By Brooks Hays
A wheat field in Australia. Photo by Alexandr Dobysh/Shutterstock
A wheat field in Australia. Photo by Alexandr Dobysh/Shutterstock

PERTH, Australia, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- Researchers at Murdoch University in Australia say farmers Down Under have been hit especially hard by climate change.

A new study suggests the consequences among farmers living and working in the wheatbelt, a region in southwestern Australia, are more than environmental and financial -- they're psychological. According to a recent survey, farmers there are beset by mental health problems as a result of shifting weather patterns.

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"The South West of Western Australia has experienced abrupt and severe climate change in the last forty years," study author Neville Ellis, a researcher with Murdoch's Centre for Responsible Citizenship and Sustainability, explained in a press release. "Winter rainfall has fallen 20 percent since the 1970s, average temperatures have risen almost a degree since the 1950s and climate extremes like heatwaves, frosts and droughts are more frequent and severe."

Ellis interviewed 22 farmers from the wheatbelt. Their responses suggest wind erosion, drought, heat and shifting, unpredictable weather patterns are negatively affecting their mental well-being.

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"Farmers have always worried about the weather but today that worry is becoming detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing," Ellis said. "They feel they have less ability to exert control over their farmlands and as a result are fearful for their future."

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For many, these mental problems manifest as anxious behaviors, like incessantly checking weather reports on the phone and computer.

"I also met farmers who track storm systems off the horn of Africa in the hope that the rain will arrive ten days later," Ellis added.

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Ellis would like to see more and better mental health resources made available to farmers in the region, with an emphasis on addressing the farmers' unique predicament.

"A GP working in the Wheatbelt told me that many farmers are now suffering a form of 'seasonal affective disorder' -- not from lack of sunlight, but from lack of rain."

For many farmers, a sense of place and a strong connection with the land is an important part of their identity and their mental health. But that connection has been undermined by climatic instability.

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"Unfortunately, with all the projections predicting our climate will get hotter and drier, it is only going to get harder for many of these farmers," Ellis said. "While the rains have come in the nick of time over the last two seasons for Wheatbelt farmers, there is no surety that this pattern will continue."

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