New research conducted by the Australian National University (ANU) has found that drought significantly increases the risk of suicide among rural males aged 30-49 years.


The multi-disciplinary study, led by PhD student Ivan Hanigan from the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in collaboration with ANU researchers Colin Butler and Michael Hutchinson and CSIRO researcher Phil Kokic, took data on suicides in NSW between 1970 and 2007, and compared it with climatic drought information. 


The research found clear evidence between the relationship between drought and the prevalence of suicide in farmers and farm workers, finding that around nine per cent of rural suicides in males aged 30-39 were due to drought over the entire study period.


“Nine per cent may not sound like a big number,” said Mr Hanigan. “But over the course of the 38 years of our study, it’s a significant figure. This estimate is an average - and we know that the majority of years are not droughts - so the percentage is much greater than nine per cent in the actual drought years, since these are episodic and confined to a distinct minority of years.


“Plus, importantly, a suicide doesn’t only affect one individual. For every person who takes their own life, there are many members of their family, friends, and communities that bear the brunt of that action. Suicide has a devastating impact, particularly on rural towns with close-knit communities.”


The study also revealed that while suicides in males increase during drought, the relative risk for female suicides drop. The absolute number of rural male suicides is much larger however, and so this equates to a larger number of rural male suicides attributable to drought.


The research team took advantage of recent developments in statistical software to fit sophisticated models that also controlled for other well-known trends in suicide data, including that times of unusually high maximum temperatures increased suicide risk, that there was a increased risk in spring and early summer, and that there was a marked drop in suicide rates over the last decade.