Forgotten victims of the drought

Drought and our children - what are the long term affects?

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One of the most worrying and often unacknowledged aspects of this drought is the long lasting impact on our children. This will take time to address and that will depend on urgent action being taken.

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Opinion

Royal Far West chief executive officer Lindsay Cane said children are often the silent victims of the drought.

Royal Far West chief executive officer Lindsay Cane said children are often the silent victims of the drought.

OFFICIAL reports released in December show the impact of the drought on our economy and agricultural sector will linger for up to a decade.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) latest forecast show farm production is expected to fall significantly with rebuilding expected to take a decade. And that depends on rain.

The bushfires and drought have taken a toll on many people financially and emotionally.

But one of the most worrying and often unacknowledged aspects of this drought is the long lasting impact on our children. This too will take time to address. And that will depend on urgent action being taken.

The economic and financial challenges faced by farming communities, running out of water and bushfires in some areas is playing out significantly in the mental health of our rural children.

Rural children are shouldering workloads and stress far beyond normal expectations.

Isolated Children's Parents Association president Claire Butler said there is more pressure for helpers in the paddocks, so children are going out to help every day.

"The children know drought, this drought, is a big deal... There are old heads on young shoulders," Ms Butler.

Indeed the UNICEF Australia Report "In their own words: the hidden impact of prolonged drought on children", released in February last year, found the everyday lives of children and young people change rapidly and dramatically during periods of drought.

Across the communities the report authors consulted, it was found workloads for children on and off farms increased substantially, leaving little time for schoolwork and almost no time for play, sport or other recreational activities.

In other words, children and young people live and breathe the drought every day. And the report found the cumulative toll on the physical and mental wellbeing of the children and young people was evident and concerning - the longer the drought progresses, the more diminished the coping reserves.

Children with complex needs are our focus at Royal Far West. These findings are far worse for children that are already struggling with developmental challenges.

This has played out in our services offered at Royal Far West. Demand has skyrocketed during the past few years, particularly in the area of mental health.

During the past financial year, demand for our mental health telecare support service has increased by more than 80 per cent, and this service now represents more than one third of all the allied health telecare services we provide to remote and rural kids.

As the 2019 year drew to a close, there were more than 200 children on our wait list needing access to our services - many of whom may wait up to 30 weeks to access vital care.

During the past four years, demand for our Paediatric Developmental Program (PDP) - for kids living in rural and remote areas needing help with complex health needs has also dramatically increased.

Indeed, the number of kids now seeing a psychiatrist through the PDP has risen from a quarter four years ago to over a third today. Added to this is the complexity of cases our clinicians are seeing.

They are increasingly supporting highly vulnerable families; children who are struggling in their school and home life and who often have experienced early life trauma.

Local services in rural and remote areas are simply not equipped with the resources to deal with these issues. Coordinated and whole-of-government approaches are needed to ensure early intervention is provided for these kids.

Early intervention means more young people have the best possible start in life. It also makes good economic and social policy sense.

A recent report "How Australia can invest in children and return more" by Co-Lab, shows the cost of late intervention is $15.2 billion to $607 billion for every Australian.

Late intervention costs (such as out of home care, police, court and health costs, social security payments) can be greatly reduced if we act early enough.

There is also an urgent need for more services in schools, and different health settings, so young people feel comfortable in seeking help for emotional or health issues.

Our rural and remote communities are struggling. We need to work together, and we can work together, to make sure the long-term effects are not intractable.

  • Lindsay Cane is the chief executive officer of Royal Far West.
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