The unrelenting Australian drought has prompted concerns about the mental health and well-being of rural children who are being forced to “grow up prematurely,” balance education with increased farm work, and endure escalating levels of stress.
A report by UNICEF Australia described a worsening climate catastrophe and found children are facing increased pressures without sufficient mental health support. The findings were based on consultations with over 50 adolescents who gave harrowing accounts of living in the severely drought-affected towns of Gunnedah, Narrabri, Walgett, and Tamworth.
Take Action: Help Kids Facing Conflict and Crisis Stay in School
"Little, until now, has been known about the impacts droughts are having on children and young people,” said UNICEF Australia Senior Policy Advisor, Oliver White. “The cumulative toll on the physical and mental health and well-being of the children and young people that we met was evident and concerning.”
The report states workloads for children on farms had increased substantially, resulting in little time for education or free play. With the drought pushing hundreds of farming families into poverty, the majority of children revealed they had a “just get on with it” attitude because they feared worrying their parents by talking about their mental health struggles.
"They talked about the way rest, health, recreation, and socializing begin to take a back seat to getting the farm through the drought — as well as the way every aspect of the drought so often impacts negatively upon their ability to successfully pursue their education,” White added.
A recent report from the Climate Council revealed climate change was primarily to blame for the years of inadequate rainfall.
"Climate change has contributed to a southward shift in weather systems that typically brings cool season rainfall to Australia,” the report states. “Climate change is also driving an increase in the intensity and frequency of hot days and heatwaves in Australia, exacerbating drought conditions.”
In recent years, there has been increased concern over the impact of climate disasters and their aftermath on mental health. Children living in areas worst affected by climate change are less likely to attend school and face increased barriers when attempting to lift themselves and their communities out of poverty.
The UNICEF report makes nine recommendations to federal and state government, including developing a targeted national youth mental health strategy and initiating group-based student support.