The digital tools helping the unheard voices in Australia’s drought crisis

New South Wales farmers battle crippling drought Source: Getty Images

New online mental health services are being rolled out for the youth of the drought.

Australia is experiencing one of the worst droughts it has seen in the past century.

But when we picture who’s suffering, what comes to mind?

Often, it’s not the youth - the next generation and likely future owners of these drought-stricken farms.

With her boots on and puffer vest zipped up, 18-year-old Rubey Williams is gearing up to be a fourth-generation alpaca breeder on her family’s farm in the NSW Southern Highlands.

Rubey Williams lives on an alpaca farm in the Southern Highlands, NSW.
Rubey Williams lives on an alpaca farm in the Southern Highlands, NSW.
Kay Smith

But there was a point when it almost became too much for her.

Rubey’s family alpaca farm was - and still is - in drought. It’s her father’s main source of income, and last year the dry conditions really started to impact the family.

“It didn’t matter if you had all the money in the world; it’s trying to find the food (for the animals) that’s the most difficult part,” she said.

New tools to help

Australian mental health organisation ReachOut has rolled out a digital care package to help young people, like Rubey, living in drought-affected communities.

It’s been prompted by research from ReachOut, conducted with Mission Australia, which showed nearly one in four young people in regional and remote Australia were in psychological distress.

The unique package is designed so young people don’t even have to leave their properties, with tools accessible 24/7 by a smartphone, tablet or computer with an online link.

“It offers support in the way young people have told us they want it and using the channels they rely upon for information and interaction - social media,” ReachOut CEO Ashley de Silva said.

“In this way, we are overcoming the barriers to help-seeking: stigma, cost, waiting times, transport, a fear of breach of confidentiality and a preference for self-reliance.”

The digital tools are heavily focused on prevention.

Mr de Silva added, “For example, many young people are seeing their parents stressed out so we have created tools to help them, as well as advice for parents when it comes to supporting their teenagers.”

ReachOut and Mission Australia’s Lifting The Weight report showed:

  •  Regional young Australians top three worries were financial issues, school or study stress and the future.
  •  43.4 per cent of young people indicated that they would access the internet for help with important issues in their life.
  • 51.7 per cent of young people who indicated they had a problem for which they needed professional help, did not seek this type of help.

A recent report by UNICEF Australia also showed concern for the mental health and well-being of young people living in drought, saying many were forced to “grow up prematurely” by balancing education with increased farm work.

“These young people and children talked about, for example, not only having to cope with euthanising extremely sick and distressed farm animals, but in some cases of having to do it before school then having to come home and bury them afterward,” UNICEF Australia Senior Policy Advisor Oliver White said.

Rubey Williams (centre) with her parents Karen and Mick Williams on their family alpaca farm.
Rubey Williams (centre) with her parents Karen and Mick Williams on their family alpaca farm.
Kay Smith

Rubey said she never felt pressured by her parents to do more, but sometimes during tougher times she couldn’t help feeling a little guilty.

“We’d be coming home and maybe we had a stressful day at school or mum at work, and coming together as a family ... there were tensions,” she said.

“We didn’t want to talk about our own problems. But most of the time, we used that time to just be together.”

Wimmera Farmer Ben Brooksby uses social media to talk about the mental health and well-being of young people in drought-affected communities.
Wimmera Farmer Ben Brooksby uses social media to talk about the mental health and well-being of young people in drought-affected communities.

Wimmera farmer Ben Brooksby, 25, grew up during a decade-long drought in Western Victoria.

“I felt guilty all the time - if I did take a little longer in the shower or if I ate too much - you know, you think of those things and you try to do the best you can to help your family,” he said.

“My ultimate goal growing up was to be self-sustainable and that’s churned into me because of that drought and I still think about and I still want to help.”

The 25-year-old started the viral Instagram page the Naked Farmer to raise awareness of rural mental health.

“It affects young ones more than parents know I think because they’re seeing it but not saying anything about it,” he said.

'I use it every day'

Rubey became one of the first young people to use ReachOut’s digital care package and said she learned new skills for the rest of her life.

"I’ve implemented it in my life every day,” she said.

“I might wake up and if I feel a little down and if there’s a day where nothing seems to be going right on the farm, I just think back to tips – breathing exercises, communicating with each other.

“I think it’s one of the best things that could have happened to me.”

Mr de Silva said he hoped it could help young people put strategies in place to manage difficult times.

"In some cases this might be simple things like making time for things they love like hobbies,” he said.

“It might give them an opportunity to chat in our forums to other young people who might be going through the same or who can empathise.

“In some cases we know young people might need more support and ReachOut can be a starting point for figuring this out.”

Finding unique ways to connect  

Mr Brooksby is celebrating two years of the Naked Farmer Instagram account, which all started by him being just that - posing for one risqué photo with lentils.

Initially, the photo was just a joke between mates, but it exploded online and got people talking.

He said its success proved it was important to new ways to reach out to everyone in drought-affected communities.

“Social media really can tie everyone together,” he said.

“You can connect to those in the middle of nowhere as long as they have an internet connection.”

As for Rubey, her family is currently managing to keep the farm sustained and she’s studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in biology at the University of Wollongong.

While she’s always dreamed of becoming a vet one day, she considers herself a farmer first and always.

“I’m grateful to have experienced something like a drought at such a young age … it’s shown me that drought is not something a farmer can face alone, they need a whole family and support system,” she said.

“In a couple of years’ time when I might not have my parents around me on the land, I know if you build a good support system you can deal with the tough times.”

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