Church groups rally to help drought-affected communities

Bathurst Bishop Michael McKenna

Australian Catholic social services, individual parishes and dioceses have swung into action to assist regional and rural communities suffering hardship due to prolonged drought.

In light of the current crippling eastern seaboard drought affecting rural and regional communities from northern Victoria to Queensland, the Catholic Social Services Australia network has again called for a reinstatement of Federal-government support for its rural assistance and counselling programs.

Centacare CQ director Robert Sims said the situation in central west Queensland, particularly west of Alpha, is dire. Farming families are facing their fifth and sixth year of drought without an income.

“It’s a very significant issue for the local communities in the central western Queensland region and while local parishes are working to assist where they can, significant government support is needed to provide longer-term assistance to farming families during the drought and once recovery commences,” Mr Sims said.

Carmel Marshall, Centacare CQ’s planning and development manager, said: “Some farming families need to find off-farm income and often it’s the farmer who has to leave to find that work, leaving their families behind to take care of the property. There are also a number of families where the children are staying home to look after the farm instead of going to boarding school.”

Ms Marshall said the drought was having a major impact on small businesses, but only 50 per cent of eligible households were applying for assistance due to red tape “fatigue”.

“Farmers are being re-traumatised by all the red tape they have to fill in; they are suffering from ‘form fatigue’ and this is where we could help them. But we need further funding to provide that assistance,” she said.

“What’s needed is practical support on the ground to wade through the complicated pathways to access the supports that are available.

“Droughts are harder (than other natural disasters like cyclones) because it’s an ongoing natural disaster. People need that ongoing support. After the drought breaks, there’s also that period of recovery where they need support for life to come back to normal and make decisions of whether they stay or go. And that’s the piece that’s missing at the moment.”

Centacare’s North Queensland executive director Peter Monaghan, who is based in Townsville, said face-to-face contact was vital.

“People want someone sitting down and just being a human connection and we are losing that in society all over the place,” he said.

“What’s highlighted in drought is people becoming quite isolated. We have the predatory nature of the banks and, in some ways, we are setting up our people on the land for failure and increasing family dysfunction and the risk of suicide.

“From a government funding perspective, a preventative spend in this would reduce the reactive spend. The stigma of mental health is still preventing farmers from seeking help.”

Mr Monaghan, who will present at a disaster management conference in Melbourne next week, said two-thirds of Queensland was either drought-declared or very close to being drought-declared.

“We’re responding to the symptoms that come about such as the increasing risk of relationship breakdown, suicide, domestic family violence, and addictive behaviours. They’re all symptoms because of the stresses in those communities,” he said.

“We are responding to them with our suite of services, but we are only treating the symptoms. We need to get out there and build mental health and wellbeing, which our faith community has been in the past.”

In northern New South Wales, Centacare NENW CEO Fergus Fitzsimons said his community would also welcome additional funding to reactivate the Rural Resilience Program. He said the free counselling support program had been very successful when offered from 2014 to 2016, mainly due to its soft referral process.

“The cessation of this funding has had an impact on the mental health of our local communities, with some local farming communities on ‘suicide watch’ with their neighbours,” he said.

“During the last year of operation (July 2015 to June 2016), the Centacare NENW Rural Resilience Family Support Program provided assistance to 1200 individuals.

“Of this, almost half sought counselling services from Centacare NENW, with the rest being provided support and advocacy.

“During the final six months of this program, Centacare provided assistance to nearly 960 individuals, 396 through counselling and the remainder through advocacy and support. This large increase was due to our unique referral pathway.

In that period, Centacare NENW sponsored on-farm training and attended local rodeos and livestock sales (through the Targeted Community Care stream), which provided isolated individuals with a local, convenient and free self-referral pathway into mental health care or other advocacy and support.

“Centacare NENW staff reported that these soft referral processes, combined with the on-farm counselling visits, increased the engagement in mental health care for this demographic,” he said.

While many individual parishes throughout Australia are providing assistance, Bathurst Diocese united last weekend in a Day of Prayer for rain and offered practical support to farming families needing school fee relief.

Bishop of Bathurst Michael McKenna said: “We are all aware of the current drought conditions across our diocese and its effect on our lives – some of us more directly than others.

“Our prayers acknowledge our dependence on God our Creator for all things. In praying for one another, we are motivated and guided to works of practical support.”

Bishop McKenna, who travels widely throughout the diocese, is well aware of the devastating results the drought is having on communities.

To assist those most affected by the severity of the current drought gripping most of New South Wales, the Catholic Diocese of Bathurst has offered practical support to those experiencing hardship.

Bishop McKenna said: “The provision of affordable Catholic schooling should not be an added burden to the financial strain of families, especially for those in need in this time of drought.”

He said families who are in difficult financial circumstances, for any reason, could always approach their school principal to arrange relief of their school fees.

“We certainly do not wish to add to the financial burden families are currently experiencing, as money should not be a barrier to children attending Catholic school,” Bishop McKenna said.