A survey of school children in northern NSW has exposed how deeply the drought is affecting them.
The UNICEF survey report, In Their Words, looked at how children were coping in the drought in northern NSW, with students interviewed at Gunnedah, Narrabri, Walgett and Tamworth schools.
The report published on Monday said: “Families in these towns are doing it tough. Farmers are stretched to the brink - both financially, physically and emotionally - and spending the majority of each day hand-feeding herds of cattle due to the lack of grass and water.”
UNICEF interviewed many children, some brought to tears as they recounted how the drought was pushing their families to the brink.
“We spoke to young children who had never seen anything but dirt and dust, senior students who were extremely anxious about their futures and boarding students who sometimes preferred to be at school than at home facing the realities of the drought,” the report said.
In their words, this is what children told UNICEF:
“Everyone's had to step up. Like, with stuff I previously hadn't done, being forced to do. There’s more pressure on you than there should be. Which is awful going through year 11 and 12. Anxiety is high enough as it is, nevermind trying to deal with what’s going on at home.” - (Girl, Year 11/12)
“It's just the thought of, like, what are my other choices? If this is going to continue for as long as they think it's gonna continue?" - (Girl, year 11/12)
“You have to take care of [the animals] more than you take care of yourself...” “My father and my grandfather are feeding cattle for about three hours every day so you don’t get to see them in the morning and they’re always tired and grumpy so the home environment isn’t the best.” - (Girl, Year 9)
“You have to take care of [the animals] more than you take care of yourself or your family… you have to focus on them because they’re part of the income.” - (Boy, Year 9)
Before we shot the cattle, we...had to [for evidence] video a cow [trying to] drink water… Anyway, this cow couldn’t remember how to drink water and it just tipped the bucket over and was struggling and stuff, and then we had to shoot it. Like, we had to watch it struggle and then shoot it…” (Girl, Year 10, crying)
“Before the start of this year I’d never shot a lamb in my life - and I’ve done probably about 50 or so this year…. I’d never had to do that before. But it is just normal now. At first, I didn’t want to do it. I’d cry sort of thing. But now it’s just easy. You just do it.” - (Boy, Year 10)
“You start to get into the mindset where all you think about is money. Every time you see a cow, it’s just, that’s money. It’s no longer a cow, it’s just money. That’s all it is. Seed is money. The farm needs money. That’s the part that stresses you out. You have a whole new outlook. A cow becomes just a commodity.” - (Boy, Year 10)
“You look across a paddock and there’s nothing there? Like, it’s just dirt. And you see like a mirage… just dead lands everywhere...dead animals.” - (Boy, Year 10)
“It’s the most depressing thing. You get off the bus and you’re driving down the driveway and it’s just dust. And you only really notice it when you go to the coast and you drive over the mountains and it’s just green… It’s sad to think that I’m saying ‘wow, it’s green!’ if that makes sense.” - (Girl, Year 10)
Amy Mines, community engagement officer with headspace Dubbo said many children were carrying the worries of their parents and being asked to take on more responsibilities in the drought.
"Also many are going through changes in their lives and may find they can't afford the small devices or luxuries other children have because their families are struggling to make a living," she said.
"Also it is hard for them to go to school when they may have seen pretty confronting things on the farm and then they find trivial things at school. Problems are being magnified by the environment they are in. They are also carrying that concern for their parents, and not only not seeing them as much because they are out feeding stock, but having to help out to do that as well."
If you have any concerns about yourself or a loved one, contact the NSW Mental Health Line on 1800 011 511 (free call for landlines) or call Lifeline on 13 11 14. headspace has a free anonymous counselling service and chat online for young people (https://headspace.org.au/eheadspace) .There are also headspace centres located in many areas of regional NSW.