Mental health fears for drought-affected kids
EXCLUSIVE: Aussie kids as young as five have detailed the horror of experiencing the drought and the devastating impact it's having on their mental health and wellbeing in a new report out today.
News Corp Australia can reveal the "UNICEF- in their own words" report which has collated the experiences of Australian kids in the bush who say they are having to grow up a lot faster than their siblings or relatives who experienced good times.
Many are worried about not even being able to finish high school or have a future for their family.
Kids as young as five have opened up about their workloads and the long and stressful days they have to endure in soul-crushing detail.
Many talk about having to work in the morning before school to keep the farm afloat, tending to sick or dying animals - and in some cases even have to euthanise them - then having to show up to a normal school day before returning to bury the animals in the evening.
The peak children's welfare body UNICEF held focus groups with more than 50 primary and secondary-school aged children, additional educators and school staff and conducted bilateral discussions with a number of organisations involved in drought, rural services, mental
health and child/youth support.
The report outlines that children are being left with little or no time to play or engage in sport and recreational activities.
It puts forward nine key recommendations including the urgent development of a targeted youth mental health strategy, group-based student support to be rolled out in schools in drought-affected areas, in-home positive parenting programs and the funding of a full-time Youth Development Officer in drought-ravaged communities.
"The current and developing crisis requires significantly more attention than it is receiving," the report states.
UNICEF Australia's senior policy Adviser and lead on the report Oliver White said children were often hiding their own pain to be strong for their parents.
"We found that they have been put in the position of having to make very adult decisions about their lives, their parents' lives, their family's farms and businesses," Mr White said.
The government's drought envoy Barnaby Joyce said the drought was causing stress to kids and the report did a good job of highlighting the issues experienced by rural families.
He said he would take some of the recommendations to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison for consideration but believed the Morrison government was already heavily investing in mental health services for youth and children.
"The problems in the paddock are coming through to the kitchen," Mr Joyce said.
Labor yesterday gave its support to the report, saying a "whole-of-government response" was required.
"It's our responsibility to make sure the voices of these children are heard," opposition agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said.
Former Australian of The Year and youth mental health advocate Patrick McGorry said it was vital kids in the bush experiencing drought were given all the support they needed.
"But we need to look to fund existing services like Headspace centres along with some of these recommendations," Professor McGorry said.
Kids Helpline told News Corp yesterday it was receiving more contacts than ever from kids stressed about the drought.
"Anecdotally, our counsellors have reported children and young people in rural and remote areas contacting us because they are anxious about the impact of the drought or are concerned about how it might be impacting their parents," Tony Fitzgerald from the service said.
President of the Isolated Children's Parents' Association, Wendy Hick, said more needed to be considered to help children experiencing drought.
She suggested the government not only support increased mental health services but also establish a rural education fund to allow those children who needed to be sent away for school to be able to continue doing so in hard times.
"Many families are having to go into massive debt to keep their children in school and it is not fair."
Executive director of The Parenthood Alys Gagnon said the recommendation in the report to provide in-home support for parents experiencing drought was welcomed.
"Positive parenting support programs that help mums and dads to help their kids navigate the worry and upset of drought could be a really useful support," Ms Gagnon said.
Chief executive of Beyond Blue Georgie Harman said the early years of development were vital to wiring kids brains on how to cope with future life events.
"Half of all lifelong mental health conditions emerge before the age of 14 so it's absolutely vital that we don't forget about children in this."
PRESSURE ON FAMILIES
Trina and Jock Fletcher have been living through tough times for seven years.
In that whole time they've only had one good spring and one good autumn.
The rest of the time has been mired by drought and hardship.
The couple, along with their children Angus, 6, Grace, 5, and Harry, 2, keep cattle and sheep on 4200 acres outside Walcha in New South Wales.
Mrs Fletcher, 36, says the impact of the drought on their kids is significant - despite the couple doing everything they can to reduce their stress.
"Mentally for the children it is not fantastic … they are not blinded by what we are going through and it's really tough," she said.
"My two-year-old thinks all you do is shoot stock because that's what he's seen so much of."
Ms Fletcher said the government needed to invest in things that would reduce cost-pressures on families.
"I'm not sure farmers or there families will use mental health services and maybe that is a problem. But what we need now is things that reduce the cost of daycare, or our insurance payments or subsidising our electricity bills or making buying feed cheaper," she said.
"These are all things that will make it easier on us and so easier on the kids."
Ms Fletcher said her three children probably weren't having as much play time as they would if they weren't in drought.
"Of course because we're all stressed and our weekends are spent feeding stock or doing things around the farm you might be more stressed at the kids as a result when all they are doing is trying to play," she said.
Mr Fletcher, 39 - whose family has been farming for 150 years - said: "You can work your butt off, spend a lot of time and money trying to do the right thing for your country and animals but in the end it all boils down to the fact that we are at the mercy of mother nature".
"There are more pictures of our kids feeding sheep and cattle than I can care to admit."
RECOMMENDATIONS FROM THE REPORT
* The federal government develops a targeted youth mental health strategy to meet the mental health needs of young people who are impacted by drought and natural disasters
* State and federal governments fund and design a psychological/mental health first aid capacity building program (non-clinical) for young people, adults and community leaders in drought-affected communities.
* State and territory Departments of Education ensure that schools in drought-affected areas provide options for group-based student support to avoid the stigma often associated with one-on-one counselling or clinical support.
* Federal government funding for a youth-designed sensitisation campaign in drought-affected communities to increase mental health literacy and normalise support/help-seeking behaviours
* As an extension to the Rural Resilience Program, the Australian Government fund in-home positive parenting programs to better support parents to communicate and care for their children through their stress.
* The establishment of community based child and youth wellbeing groups, linking key stakeholders across each drought affected community. Federal government funding for local governments to provide designated youth-friendly spaces and at least one full-time designated Youth Development Officer, on an ongoing basis, with a capacity to scale up during periods of drought.
* Those working closely with families most significantly affected by the drought and other interested members of the child-facing workforce participate in UNICEF Australia-designed training on providing quality psychosocial support for children and young people.
* The Australian Government, in co-operation with state and territory governments, map child and youth-related services in drought-affected areas and ensure that community support materials are in a child-friendly and accessible format, and are readily available