A coal truck roars past, stirring up red dust that blows over the famished cattle and sheep lying in grassless paddocks. The carcasses of dead kangaroos lie next to empty water troughs. There is no birdsong.
Some say it has been the worst drought in a century here across central and eastern Australia. As in other parts of the world, climate change and land clearing are driving soaring temperatures and extreme weather events, including heatwaves and droughts. Australia already experiences several weeks each year when temperatures climb above 45°C, but few people were prepared for the drying-up of dams and waterways.
Food insecurity is now a real threat as livestock and wildlife are dying in New South Wales (NSW). Farmers are struggling; rates of depression and anxiety are increasing among those who stay.
“I was sleeping for 15 hours a day,” says Richard, a cattle farmer living near White Cliffs in western NSW. “I felt so sick and tired I thought I had cancer. But it was depression.”
His depression hit just before this drought, and was brought on, he thinks, by extreme stress and family issues. But drought only adds to farmers’ stress: it degrades the land, which makes it harder to earn a living.
In 2018, a study from the University of Newcastle in NSW and published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that rural farmers there experienced “significant stress about the effects of drought on themselves, their families and their communities”. Other research suggests that income insecurity related to drought increases farmers’ risk of suicide.
Pat Dudgeon at the University of Western Australia is the country’s first Aboriginal psychologist. She specialised in suicide prevention because of the mental health issues in her community in Kimberley, a region of north-west Australia.
Throughout Australia, suicide rates have increased dramatically for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the past 30 years, a 2018 research review published in the journal BMC Medicine found. The rise is due to ongoing issues of racism, poverty and intergenerational pain, the legacy of centuries of colonisation and mistreatment by British and Australian governments. Many Aboriginal people have had their land taken from them and been forcibly removed to live in missions or be fostered as children by non-Aboriginal people.
Dudgeon believes lessons about grief and trauma can be learned from the loss of land and culture that Aboriginal people have experienced. She says psychology can move away from the Western tradition of expert and patient, towards a more narrative form based on Aboriginal traditions and reconnecting with the land.
And as more psychologists begin to incorporate Aboriginal concepts into their practice, such a combined approach might help farmers to dealing with drought to reconnect with the land and improve their mental health, too.
“If the land is sick, you are sick,” says Fiona Livingstone, who manages a suicide prevention programme at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health.
She explains that the traditional Aboriginal concept of health is much broader than that of conventional Western medicine. Aboriginal people, she says, are deeply connected to “country”, the place with which they have spiritual ties. The personal, social and ecological are closely interconnected: “health” is the state in which they are all in balance.
Prolonged drought affects Aboriginal communities in farming regions economically, because it leads to a lack of work. There’s also grief at the loss of nature from the deaths of wild animals and plants. These experiences of not being able to take care of the land during long periods of drought increase stress, and can lead to an increase in antisocial and risk-taking behaviour such as drug dependence and drinking.
Droughts, the authors of one report explain, can have the effect of “exacerbating underlying grief and trauma,” explain authors of one report.
But dealing with feelings of despair can be complicated. The traditional expert–patient relationship of psychological treatment has often been seen by Aboriginal people as being based on that of the colonial master and the colonised.
That’s a problem if, as Dudgeon believes, colonisation is also the primary source of Aboriginal people’s distress and often the underlying cause of depression and suicidal feelings.
“It is this lack of self-determination that continues to cause a higher incidence of suicide in Aboriginal people. It is a sense of hopelessness passed from one generation to another,” she explains.
Dudgeon says that medical clinics are sometimes the answer, at least for people at immediate risk of suicide. But for those who want to build their emotional resilience, the use of ancient rituals, reminding people of their history and creating a sense of belonging can be powerful.
“Strengthening culture and a strong sense of self is certainly an important part of Aboriginal wellbeing,” she adds.
In Canada, a model called cultural continuity has proved useful in supporting young First Nations people. This approach is about helping people feel pride in their culture, making them custodians of knowledge and asking them to teach others to look after the environment we all depend on. This emphasis on self-determination and valuing cultural ways can help at-risk adolescents by giving them coping strategies. It can also be useful for families coping with trauma and loss.
Studies have suggested that cultural continuity can reduce suicide rates as people begin to feel they are no longer in a cultural no man’s land, belonging to neither Western nor indigenous culture.
It’s an approach that works in Australia, too.
A strong sense of responsibility to the land, of being “custodians of the land we live on”, is intrinsic to Australian Aboriginal culture. But climate change has made the weather chaotic, with drier winters and erratic or failing rains. No one can remember it being so dry, so little water in the dams and creeks.
Water is a symbol of knowledge in at least one Aboriginal culture. In languages of the Northern Territory, the word “ganma” means a place where salt water and fresh water meet. It is used as a metaphor for different people coming together to share knowledge and reach a mutual understanding.
It’s also the basis of what Aboriginal people call “yarning” – sitting in a circle on the ground, sharing stories.
These old ways of thinking are being used by some psychologists to counter the colonial connotations of the Western style of psychology. Consultations based on yarning involve history, storytelling and finding common ground through skin ties, a complex system of inter-family connections. It can take weeks or months – the comparative directness of a Western-style consultation is seen as rude in Aboriginal culture.
“Yarning is about cultural awareness,” says Ivan Lin from the University of Western Australia. He works primarily with Aboriginal communities in pain management, and says poor communication can be a barrier to effective treatment: “It’s often the doctor who interrupts too quickly and prevents the patient actually saying what they want to say. I use clinical yarning in my practice for this reason.
“It creates a relationship and it’s about problem solving. I would ask, for example, if the patient is from a place where water is really important. As a doctor, can you use water to keep the discussion moving, keep them talking? Ask about fishing, going out with their son. Could activities on the water be useful in helping the patient in some way?”
Yarning has become the basis of many remote health projects. A programme based on listening to Aboriginal Elders started more than 15 years ago for the management of chronic health conditions. It’s now run in several NSW health districts, where Elders are asked to help evaluate why some health initiatives aren’t working for Aboriginal people and how they could be more effective.
Mental health workers are building on this idea, yarning with older Aboriginal people in remote areas to understand their health needs, with the effects of the drought now foremost in everyone’s minds. But could it also work with non-Aboriginal people feeling helplessness and despair in response to the drought?
Dudgeon would like to see more Aboriginal psychologists who can teach other colleagues about cultural continuity, the concept of ganma and the practice of yarning.
The Australian Indigenous Psychology Education Project, led by Dudgeon, aims not only to increase the number of Aboriginal psychologists, but also to integrate Aboriginal studies into psychology courses for all students. She hopes this will lead others to realise that humans can rise to the challenge of environmental degradation, and find ways to cope with the conflict and stress that comes with it.
Already some rural Aboriginal psychologists and suicide prevention workers have started buddying up with counterparts from other communities.
Such collaborations use a wide variety of methods across a range of age groups, such as starting up young people’s football teams, with visiting Aboriginal psychologists to help mentor the girls and boys. There are also intense weekend workshops for women or men to learn about Aboriginal Dreaming.
For example, in water Dreaming workshops, an Aboriginal Elder and a psychologist teach a small multi-ethnic class about the cultural significance of water and how it has been managed over thousands of years. Public events help everyone to learn a little about these old water stories and how important it is to live harmoniously in your country.
Studies at the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health have confirmed that these activities can be useful psychologically. Colin Rigby and colleagues spoke to 166 participants in yarning workshops from 27 communities across rural NSW during the “Big Dry” of 2008. Just having the impact of the drought on Aboriginal people recognised, by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities alike, was valued. But bringing participants from both communities together to combine their skills and yarn also gave “meaningful expression of partnership”, in the words of participants, and a sense of unity, vision and clarity.
Aboriginal people were instrumental in guiding the yarning, helping participants to understand each other, taking time to find the right words to express feelings and discover shared experiences.
The researchers found that many Aboriginal people were happy having non-Aboriginal people involved if they followed ganma and listened. Sometimes it led to a sense of reconciliation between the two groups.
In this context, ganma has come to mean “If you listen to us, we’ll listen to you”. That is, two cultures listening to and learning from each other. It’s symbolic, representing different communities working to find practical solutions when dealing with ecological grief and the loss of nature and home.
Fiona Livingstone, who isn’t Aboriginal, developed “We-Yarn” workshops with the Aboriginal former rugby player Nathan Blacklock. They encourage Aboriginal Dreaming, telling stories about history that can nourish a “remembered connectedness to land,” she explains.
Small groups go to learn lessons about a specific place: a creek, its animals, and the stories about their ancestors, such as why a particular family group comes to this place for solace when someone in the family has died.
When their workshops include non-Aboriginal people, the team are careful to ensure that the Aboriginal participants are happy to be part of a mixed group. “It really depends on the community requesting the workshops and what their needs and wishes are for the workshops. We are led by what particular communities ask for,” says Livingstone.
Coastal communities may ask for the workshops to include Dreaming stories about saltwater animals and they may like to spend a day at the beach, sitting on the sand and yarning. Freshwater people may like to hear stories about how the landscape and their community was formed. Such stories are important to give people a sense of identity and to inspire creative thinking, which is often lost when people feel depressed.
Many participants in the yarning sessions come as they are suffering with serious distress and are suicidal. Their GPs may recommend them as part of a course of treatment. The key is to encourage people to feel that they have a responsibility to protect the environment, to feel the connectedness to land that people outside Aboriginal communities may not be used to; that the sky, the land, the rivers are all related.
One non-Aboriginal participant, a farmer who asked to remain anonymous, came to a workshop after she was diagnosed with clinical depression. Like many other farmers, she believes her depression came about due to cumulative pressures, the drought being the last straw.
“We talked about what we had experienced during the drought. Most of the Aboriginal people spoke of feelings of hopelessness for a long time, not just the drought, as they feel neither Western nor Aboriginal and stuck ‘between worlds’. I often think I feel a bit like I don’t fit in with Western people a lot either, but I realise it’s different and it’s not the same, what I have been struggling with.
“Some of the Aboriginal people also spoke about feelings of shame, like not seeing enough of their family or not providing enough. I sat there thinking it’s an emotion Westerners should feel more of until we start helping fix the land we are helping to destroy. Now it’s affecting our livelihoods. I certainly won’t be able to stay on the land if we have another drought next winter.”
Livingstone says she’s gained a lot from working with Blacklock and others in ganma workshops. Part of their programme involves the arts, such as painting, photography and performance. It may be less practical than learning about what crops to grow to eat in a climate of prolonged drought, but articulating how you feel is also a part of dealing with stress.
Another workshop technique the team uses is for two psychologists to work in tandem, one Aboriginal and one not, talking about a three-stage process when trying to deal with new and difficult situations like climate change. First, there’s awareness, then a feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless, then there is action and overcoming shame.
The underlying philosophy of this approach is that “feelings must turn into action,” Livingstone explains. “It’s tough out here but it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Look at what Aboriginal people have endured. Their connection to each other, the land and their spirituality is something to be admired,” she says. “Things can be done and people can survive, we just need the skills to do that.”
The farmer who participated in the workshop felt a definite change in herself: “At the end of the day I felt I came away with ideas about responsibility to not just our farm but to the river nearby, the birds and kangaroos too that live on our farm. We spoke of family and land ties during the day, too. If nothing more, I feel now like a custodian of the land I live on and that gives me pride. I am responsible for the living things that depend on the farm.
You stand up taller, I feel taller, as a result,” she says.
If you or someone you know are in crisis, please call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on their 24-hour helpline on 0800 12 13 14. And in the event of a suicide emergency, contact them on 0800 567 567.
This is an edited version of an article was first published by Wellcome on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence and edited by the Bhekisisia Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up to Mosaic’s newsletter at https://mosaicscience.com/newsletter