The `Staying healthy: Behaviours and services used by farmers and fishers’ study conducted by Professor Sue Kilpatrick, Research Professor of Regional Communities, Alfred Deakin Research Institute, at Deakin University’s Warrnambool Campus, is investigating the processes farmers and fishers use to achieve and maintain good physical and mental health in ‘difficult times’.
Professor Kilpatrick said most participants rated their health as good or very good but about half rated their mood as average or poor at least once over a three month period.
“Farmers were generally more aware of the need to look after their mental health than fishers,” she said.
“Both are very isolated but more so fishers and like farmers they also have the weather to worry about, high levels of debt and changes to industry regulations and quotas.
“The fishing participants were less likely to mention deliberate attention to mental wellbeing and rarely mentioned social connectedness as part of their health maintenance strategy. They appeared to be more socially isolated than other participants.”
The study found industry groups are key sources of health information and group settings are favoured sources of mental health information.
“One reason people in the fishing industry are less aware of their mental health situation could be that farming organisations are more active and have more capacity to lobby for and organise and promote mental health support services,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
Professor Kilpatrick said most participants drew a clear link between difficult times in their industry, caused mainly by drought and/or changes to regulation, and their health and mental health.
“For some participants, working in a rural industry had a positive impact on mental wellbeing but for a larger group the farming or fishing lifestyle imposed social isolation that required deliberate action to counter for mental wellbeing,” she said.
Professor Kilpatrick said the study confirmed the importance of both supportive neighbours, and formal social involvement in organised community activity.
“The farmers and fishers in the study relied on GPs for most health services, including mental health,” she said.
“Despite there being mental health services available, very few of the participants reported using them.
“Most agreed that it was important that such services exist although some participants at the fishing site viewed accessing mental health services as a sign of weakness.”
Professor Kilpatrick said a key message from the research was that provision of programs and services and internet and print information alone was not sufficient to increase preventative health behaviours amongst farmers.
“Farmers must be supported and assisted to use available services effectively in a way that is personally and occupationally relevant and that there needs to be a focus on regional development initiatives such as community capacity building, leadership development and employment creation,” she said.
“Most farmers, particularly males, are less likely to access formal health services and more likely to prefer soft entry points such as farmer field days and farmer education programs.
“Group information sessions and education programs are preferred by many farmers and fishers, especially for mental health topics.”
Professor Kilpatrick said a stronger focus and wider rollout of preventive strategies and programs was needed, and rural GPs needed to ensure they provide regular check-ups to farmers and fishers.
“Mental health first aid training should be promoted and supported, particularly in the fishing industry,” she said.
The study has recommended industry associations and organisations should work with their constituents to promote health and wellbeing and fund research into effective strategies for supporting fishers’ health and wellbeing.