UNICEF combines drought stories of country kids to warn of worsening rural stress
By Patrick Wood, Tue 19 Feb 2019
Children in drought-ravaged parts of Australia have described missing the colour green and having to kill malnourished animals before school, as part of a new project that also warns some country kids are near breaking point.
Primary and high school children talked about having to grow up too fast, often skipping classes to help their parents work their properties, and called on politicians to visit their towns and "feel what it's like" to live through a drought.
The testimonies have been compiled in a new report released today by UNICEF Australia, In Their Own Words, which concludes that children in Australia's rural communities are not receiving the support they need to cope with the drought burden.
These are some of the stories the kids told the authors of the report:
"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 didn't want to do it. Like, I cried sort of thing. Like, I didn't want to do it. But now it's just easy. You just do it." Ã¢â¬â boy, year 10
"I normally wake up at 7 o'clock and do the same things: get dressed, brush my teeth and go to work instead." Ã¢â¬â girl, year 2
"Our parents want to give us things, but they just can't and we just know that and don't say anything. Because it probably hurts them too." Ã¢â¬â girl, year 11
"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." Ã¢â¬â boy, year 10
"Everything's just brown. There's no green. Just dust and dirt." Ã¢â¬â 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?" Ã¢â¬â girl, year 10
"You used to have time to go out with your friends and have a night out have fun and all that and now it's like, 'Nah, can't do that, gotta feed animals'." Ã¢â¬â girl, year 10
"I've had to probably take 10 or more days off this term alone to help." Ã¢â¬â girl, year 9
"You get home and you bust your arse to feed stock and that, all night until about 10 o'clock at night, and then you've got to do homework. And that's the hardest thing. Like, you're tired and you're up till 12 and you're tired the next day. So it just keeps piling up. It's like a domino effect and it just gets worse and worse." Ã¢â¬â boy, year 10
"I had to grow up a lot more quicker than my sisters did. And for that, it just sucks." Ã¢â¬â boy, year 11
"When it rains it's like a present." Ã¢â¬â boy, year 6
"[Politicians] should come down for a week and feel what it's like." Ã¢â¬â girl, year 10
"They need to come down ... like, as a human, not a politician." Ã¢â¬â girl, year 9
Kids bringing anger to school
UNICEF partnered with schools and community organisations to interview 54 kids and seven educators in drought-affected areas of NSW, namely Tamworth, Gunnedah, Narrabri and Walgett.
The testimonies reveal what many educators in the region already know: kids are doing it tough, and in many cases are stepping in to help parents who are also struggling.
The school chaplain at a regional NSW high school reported kids were dealing with sadness and anger, and were bringing those emotions to school each day.
"They understand things are not right and they're trying to work out a way through it," he told the UNICEF report.
"It's all very real, and the emotional impact is huge as their coping mechanisms are exhausted."
One teacher reported kids were deliberately hiding how hard they found it.
"Most of them aren't willing to share how they're struggling personally, because they don't want to be an additional impact on their family," they said.
"They're too embarrassed to say what the real problem is."
'Kids can only cope for so long'
UNICEF found that while there had been significant media and political attention on drought in Australia, children were often overlooked.
It also found stress and anxiety were likely to compound if something didn't change.
"Even if many children and young people are 'coping' at a moderate level now, as time goes on, their ability to cope and manage the effects of the drought on their lives is likely to diminish," the report reads.
It makes nine recommendations for state and federal governments to address the issue.
These include developing and funding targeted programs to address youth mental health in drought-affected areas; funding for in-home parenting support programs; and encouraging those working with kids to undergo training on how to help kids in need.
UNICEF Australia senior policy advisor Oliver White said the initiatives could help address an issue that had largely gone unnoticed.
"While we have seen devastating flooding in north and north western Queensland, and terrible fires in Tasmania, it is easy to overlook the fact that vast swathes of inland Australia, and the people who live there, are still suffering through devastating prolonged drought," he said.
"While many initiatives have been implemented over time to assist these communities and the adults who run the farms, little is known about the impacts the drought is having on the children and young people."
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