Some people who are depressed turn to alcohol to feel better. This is known as ‘self-medication’ and is a common but unsafe and ineffective coping strategy for farmers and other people living in rural and remote areas.
Statistics show that country men in particular consume more alcohol than is considered healthy. Other people who are not depressed may drink too much alcohol and become depressed. There is a strong link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression.
People in rural or remote areas have to contend with long-term sources of stress, such as climate variability (drought, fires, floods, cyclones), pest plagues (such as mice and locusts), financial worries and isolation. This can lead to depression, anxiety and mental health issues, which are serious problems in many Australian farming communities.
Alcohol can mask your feelings in the short term, but it does not treat the underlying causes of depression. In the long run, it can actually make your mental problems worse. Support is available to help farmers and their communities find other ways to tackle depression.
Symptoms of depression
Studies suggest that farmers who are depressed don’t tend to use the word ‘depression’ to describe their state of mind, but may describe it as ‘stress’ instead. However, stress and depression are not the same and require different approaches to treatment.
Some of the symptoms of depression include:
- feeling sad or flat
- losing interest and pleasure in normal activities
- appetite or weight loss (also binge/comfort eating and weight gain)
- sleep problems, such as an inability to fall sleep or early waking
- feeling tired all the time
- concentration problems
- feelings of restlessness, agitation, worthlessness or guilt
- not motivated to socialise or exercise
- feeling that life isn’t worth living.
Self-medication with alcohol – the dangers
Farming communities in Australia are experiencing a high rate of mental health problems. Research over the last ten years shows a clear link between alcohol use and depression.
Some of the dangers of trying to treat depression with alcohol include:
- short-term risks such as accidental injury, vehicle crashes or getting arrested for drink driving
- long-term health risks, such as liver damage, brain damage and some cancers
- increased risk of harm – to yourself and others (through domestic and other violence, and damage to unborn children during pregnancy) and an increased risk of suicide, especially among males
- losing work time – people who self-medicate with alcohol are unable to function satisfactorily at work and have lost productivity due to absenteeism, premature retirement or injury
- substance use problems, such as alcohol dependence (‘addiction’)
- social issues such as relationship breakdown, becoming withdrawn from social circles and difficulty in parenting or supporting your family
- financial burden associated with the cost of alcohol.
Statistics for alcohol consumption in rural communities
Alcohol causes changes in consciousness, mood and emotions. It is these intoxicating and psychoactive effects that can lead to accidents, injuries, diseases and disruptions to the family life of everyday Australians.
Selected statistics on alcohol use in rural and remote communities include:
- Men who live in rural communities drink around five per cent more alcohol than those in metropolitan communities.
- About one quarter of rural men who responded to a survey on lifestyle habits reported drinking more than four drinks per drinking session. About one third of respondents reported that they consume alcohol up to four days per week.
- Binge drinking (consuming many drinks in a single session) is more likely to occur in younger men.
- Teenagers in rural areas are more likely to drink alcohol than teenagers in city areas.
- In one study of women living in rural or remote communities, the majority who self-medicated with alcohol (and other drugs) also reported having emotional or mental problems.
Reasons for the statistics
Some possible reasons for these alarming statistics include:
- The pub or the bar at the local sports club may be one of the few avenues available for socialising. Boredom and lack of employment or alternative entertainment may be a factor in increased rates of alcohol consumption.
- Depression, anxiety and mental health issues are a serious and poorly managed problem in many Australian farming communities – barriers to getting help and lack of appropriate support can lead people to self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs.
- Advancing age is a risk factor in alcohol misuse. Older men are more likely to consume alcohol on a regular basis.
- Emphasis in education programs and the media on the short-term risks of teenage drinking (such as drink driving) can mean that longer-term risks, such as alcohol dependence, brain damage, cancer, lifestyle disease or liver damage, are not considered.
- Alcohol may mistakenly be seen by parents and communities as a lesser evil compared to other drugs, which may mean there is greater tolerance for high rates of drinking among young people.
Barriers to getting help
Some reasons why rural people may not seek help for depression include:
- shame and embarrassment
- not understanding that they may be stressed, anxious or depressed
- the inclination to ignore personal problems and just ‘get on with it’
- geographical isolation
- lack of time
- lack of public transport
- lack of healthcare facilities in the immediate area
- not having enough money to pay for accommodation while undergoing treatment in metropolitan areas
- not knowing about the range of health services available to people living in rural and remote areas.
Self-help strategies for depression
Alcohol only masks depression and does not treat it. It is actually a depressant. You will need to find other ways to overcome depression if you want to feel better. Suggestions include:
- Educate yourself about depression.
- Consult with your doctor or community health professional for information, advice and referral. Your doctor may suggest a short-term trial of antidepressant medication.
- Listen to your friends and family. If they say you are drinking too much, then you probably are.
- Don’t bottle things up – talk with loved ones and trusted friends.
- Discuss your anxieties, worries and feelings with a counsellor. They are trained to help you come up with practical solutions. Many counselling services are available over the phone.
- Make a deliberate effort to cut back on drinking. One simple strategy is to stop keeping alcohol in the house, have alcohol-free weeks, participate in ‘Feb Fast’, ‘Dry July’ or ‘Sober October’ activities, and alcohol-free social functions. Seek support to help you tackle alcohol dependence.
- Explore proven self-help strategies for easing depression, such as regular exercise.
- Tackle the problems that are causing you to feel depressed.
Tackle your problems
Negative experiences and loss are common causes of depression. Take steps to address the real-life stressors that are getting you down. Make a start by seeking out appropriate support services. Assistance is usually free of charge and, in some cases, support workers can come to you. Ask over the phone. Your doctor can advise you about services that are available.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- beyondblue Infoline Tel. 1300 224 636
- Bush Support Services Tel. 1800 805 391 – provides rural health professionals and their families with support to successfully manage the stress associated with remote area and rural practice
- DirectLine Tel. 1800 888 236 – for information, referral and support if you are concerned about your, or someone else’s, drinking. DirectLine also offers a real-time online counselling service, available 24 hours a day and offers text-based counselling
- DACAS (Drug and Alcohol Clinical Advisory Service) Tel. 1800 812 804 (Victoria) – a 24-hour telephone consultancy service for professionals who need advice on the clinical management of alcohol and drug issues
- Family Drug Helpline Tel. 1300 660 068 (Victoria) – a ‘listening ear’ service responding to families experiencing alcohol and drug-related difficulties
- NSW Mental Health Information Service Tel. 1300 794 991 – for an anonymous and free telephone and email information hotline during business hours. Qualified staff are able to assist you by tapping into a specialised database to help you find solutions to your problems
- SuicideLine Victoria Tel. 1300 651 251 – for counselling, crisis intervention, information and referral (24 hours, 7 days)
- Lifeline Tel. 13 11 14
- Mensline Tel. 1300 78 99 78 – 24/7 telephone and online support, information and referral service, helping men to deal with relationship problems in a practical and effective way
- Rural Financial Counselling Victoria Tel. (03) 5442 2424
- National Centre for Farmer Health Tel. (03) 5551 8533
- Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety Tel. (02) 6752 8210
- MoneyHelp Tel. 1800 007 007, 9.30 am to 5.00 pm weekdays – a free financial counselling and debt advice phone service for Victorians (includes interpreter services)
Things to remember
- Alcohol only masks depression and does not treat it – you will need to find other ways to tackle your depression if you want to feel better.
- Take steps to address the things that make you feel stressed and are getting you down.
- Support is available for people living in rural and remote areas. Consult with your doctor or community health worker for information, advice and referral.
This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
National Centre for Farmer Health
Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your doctor or other registered health professional. Content has been prepared for Victorian residents and wider Australian audiences, and was accurate at the time of publication. Readers should note that, over time, currency and completeness of the information may change. All users are urged to always seek advice from a registered health care professional for diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.