Extreme drought and increasing temperature contribute to suicide rates in rural areas

Drought and hotter temperature impacts on suicide: evidence from the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia

by Ying Xu, Sarah Ann Wheeler and Alec Zuo

Published 15 September 2023

What's the issue?

Suicide rates are higher in rural areas compared to metropolitan areas in Australia, with farmers, in particular, identified as being at higher risk. Extreme weather events such as floods or droughts are forecast to increase due to climate change. These events can negatively impact the mental health of rural communities and farmers, potentially leading to an increase in suicide rates.

What was done?

This study explored the impact of drought and hotter temperatures on monthly suicides by examining local areas in the Murray-Darling Basin during 2006-2016. The Murray-Darling Basin accounts for a large portion of Australia’s agricultural industry and experienced prolonged periods of drought during the early 2000s.

The study utilised a number of data sources, including National Causes of Death data, Census data, and weather data from the Bureau of Meteorology. These were all mapped to regions of the Murray-Darling Basin to create a model that allowed analysis of the relationship between drought, temperature and sociodemographic characteristics with suicide rates.

What was found?

The results indicated that drought and higher monthly average maximum temperatures were associated with increased suicide rates across Murray-Darling Basin regional areas. The key findings including:

  • An additional month of ‘moderate’ drought in the previous 12 months was associated with a small but significant (2%) increase in the suicide rate
  • An additional month of ‘extreme’ drought in the previous 12 months was associated with a large increase in suicide rate (32%)
  • A 1°C increase in average monthly maximum temperature in the previous 12 months was associated with up to an 8% increase in the suicide rate.

While these results are compelling, it is important to remember that temperature and drought are only two contributing variables, and suicide rates are always a result of many complex and interacting factors. The authors also note that during the study period, the average length of time an area was exposed to moderate drought was 1.73 months (52 days), and only 0.01 of a month (0.3 days) for extreme drought.

When examining other sociodemographic and environmental characteristics of areas, the study found:

  • In males and younger age groups, suicide rates are more strongly associated with extreme drought and higher temperatures
  • A higher proportion of farmers in a local area was associated with an increased suicide rate
  • A higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in a local area was also associated with higher suicide rates
  • More green space was found to reduce the impact of drought and extreme temperatures on suicide rates
  • An increase in average annual household income moderated the relationship between higher temperature and suicide.
Why are findings important?

The results suggest that mental health in agricultural areas may deteriorate if extreme weather events become more common. Recognising the contribution of extreme weather on suicide, particularly among populations already at higher risk, is essential for policy and service planning purposes. The study also points to moderating factors, such as maintaining green spaces in areas, that may be protective against suicide.

Regional economic, social and environmental policies should be considered as part of a whole-of-government suicide prevention approach. Further research is needed to establish the effectiveness of interventions and government policy to ease financial distress, improve water management and increase green spaces in drought-prone areas, which may be as important as community and individual-level approaches and support services.