A study by D J Harvey and the Department of Social Work and Community Welfare at the James Cook University in Queensland  explored the well accepted notion that there was very little difference between the well being of country women and their urban sisters. In the context of drought and tough economic times, there have been ideas to the contrary. Indeed, there have been a number of indications that Australian women living outside metropolitan areas might have a heightened risk of mental health problems and mental disorders due to a range of factors specifically related to rural living. These conditions include ‘isolation, economic restructuring, climate extremes and distance from services’. The research is sketchy to say the least. Womens’ Health Australia found that although women in rural areas experienced a similar number of stressful events, they were less stressed by them than urban women’. Harvey’s study suggested that this was due to a ‘gendered rural identity’. Rural women coped better with life’s difficulties because they were conditioned into seeing themselves as rural and therefore better able to cope. Harvey’s study revealed that most rural women had the view that they were physically and mentally strong and resilient simply because of their identity.
The fact is these women fulfil their roles because ‘identity’ means they are stereotyped and thus afforded limited options. Implicit in the view of stereotyping is the notion that all women in country areas are the same and many are willing to succumb to some form of unwanted oppression. Or, alternatively they can negotiate their way around it. This might be true, but is it good for well being?
Well being obviously varies according to age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, education and more. Nonetheless, whole populations tend to put the realities aside and become beguiled by the imagery of what life in the country should be like rather than the way it is. This is helped by media advertising and programmes such as McCloud’s Daughters, which portrays the rural setting as healthy and a wonderful adventure. Even when somebody dies there is a heightened level of excitement. Selling the stock to pay for the funeral while the body is still warm pumps the heart just that little bit faster. It makes for good entertainment. However, let us not forget that entertainment plays on the emotions it has nothing to do with reasoned judgement.
In all honesty, how many city women would want half their arm stuck up the rear end of a cow? How many would replace their Chanel No 5 perfume for the smell of the silage that hangs putrid in the air night after night? How many would relish the idea of having to hose the cow dun from dairy walls so it covers their boots and clothing and gets into their hair? Whoever called this ‘well being’ needs to seriously question their interpretation of the word; such activities might be necessary for job survival, but they are certainly not a good definition of ‘well being’. Nor are they particularly conducive to good physical or mental health.
If city folks knew how many chemicals got dumped on the land and how many get into their food chain they might think twice about what they eat. Notwithstanding, farmers handle these chemicals daily and we do not really know how they impact on health and well being. Cancer rates are high, so too is depression a reality, albeit more hidden in country areas than anywhere else. Maintaining the country traditions often means living with shame if something happens to make the circumstances of living different.
Environmentalists are fast becoming aware of a farming industry that is not ‘quant’ but ‘cruel’. Do city people know that farmers still cut the tails off their dairy cows? Do city people ever see a young calf wrenched from its mother straight after birth in order to preserve the milk for commercial consumption? I am loathed to think that these event do not impact on the state of mind of the farmer. After all, is an abattoir very different from a war zone? Could it be that the number of boys who leave the farms and go into the military do so because killing appears familiar. This might be drawing a long bow, but the unconscious traits are not always obvious.
As a therapist and social researcher living between Melbourne and a small country town I would suggest that the term ‘well being’ is understood differently by different groups. In Melbourne for example, well being means having a good education and experiencing a wide variety of social and cultural events, thus being able to gain a comprehensive understanding of the world we live in. This is not always the case, money and parental influences play a big part in peoples’ futures. In Melbourne there are still the left-over elements of feminism that afforded women [rightly or wrongly] the idea that they have some rights. In stark contrast many country areas are extremely patriarchal and women have no rights, nor do they articulate any desire for them. Many women seem to think they can rule the roost with their sexuality or by the nature of them being hard working free labour.
Domestic violence and child abuse are often rampant in country areas, as many older generation members do not understand the harm it causes. It is often a case of do unto your children what was done to you. There is the lack of mandatory reporting because in small communities everyone knows everyone and there would be revenge.
Country men and women are often poorly educated so they live with the fear of being turfed off the farm, not simply because of the loss of lifestyle, but because they feel incapable of doing anything else. Women rarely inherit the farm because most are protected by family trusts which favour men. This situation is exacerbated by a lot of inbreeding, nepotism and multiple relationships that prevent women from extending their aspirations and opportunities outside of the environment.
With all of these factors in mind, country women do appear to be formidably resilient because they have learned to make do and they see no other way out. Moreover, they extol the perceived virtues of this lifestyle because to deny them would end in misery. It is usually much easier to live with a fantasy than bear the hardships of the truth. Women can believe they are happy because they have known nothing else.
If the same phenomenal lifestyle where attributed to a cult people would be very worried and want to do something to create change for the victims. We would say these people are living in a state of mind control not as individuals in a position of full consciousness.
Think about it; any attempt to confront members of cults with the inconsistencies of their beliefs fall on deaf ears and in this respect closed country communities share these same dynamics. They are reluctant to change. Feudalism in country areas still exists. Power lies with an elite and the rest do what is expected of them. This is extremely damaging to mental health and well being because it takes years of therapy or self-help to turn these deeply embedded emotional problems into self-determination and reasoned judgement. Reasoned judgement doesn’t happen in closed communities, it happens amidst a diversity of ideas.
While Harvey’s study is limited the findings suggest that the stereotyping of country womens’ resilience might actually be damaging to their health Harvey writes:
‘The studies…reveal that women have voiced resistance to expectations that they can cope with whatever comes along without adequate support. However, it is not clear how women negotiate rural identity and the broader social, cultural and physical environment in which they live, in order to achieve health and well being… the findings of this study exhibit a tension to belonging to a close knit rural community and the experience of social and geographical isolation. The study also found a tension between a strong gendered rural identity that fosters a culture of stoicism and self-reliance and feelings of resistance to societal expectations of coping with adversity. …It is necessary to move beyond stereotype views of women and simplistic notions of rurality to explore the social, cultural, economic and geographical factors, which shape womens’ experiences of health and well being’.
Cultural change requires careful social planning. It means challenging old ways and old hierarchies. It should be mandatory for government departments, including schools to employ staff from other cultures and groups from outside the area. Ethics and rights should be properly legislated and multiple relationships within statutory agencies outlawed. Small town camaraderie is not a good thing it amounts to communal autarky and the oppression of women. It is certainly not a good situation for well being. Notwithstanding all of the above, living in country areas can be amazing in terms of space, beauty and the diversity of wildlife. In addition as the cities are getting beyond their carrying capacity the country environment is gaining new blood and changing.