Episode 10: Social isolation and mental health in Rural Australia

Merrilyn Crichton knows that her research touches on economics, hard science, sustainability, psychology and sociology–and she is the first to argue that to examine social isolation and mental health in Australia’s rural communities, all these fields are needed.

In this episode of What’s Sociology Got To Do With It?, Merrilyn speaks about the disparate spread of resources between the city and the country. In her work studying Australia’s rural communities, Merrilyn has realised that rural Australians face a unique set of challenges in building and maintaining their support networks than city Australians do. And while the pandemic has seen telehealth and similar infrastructure become a priority across Australia (and yes, in the bush), she sees the pandemic-triggered lack of social interaction as another stressor for rural Australians.

And it’s this lack of social interaction that, more broadly, Merrilyn sees as dangerous. As social creatures, humans need that interaction–so what happens when that is taken away and we can’t see each other? It’s this human element in her research that Merrilyn attributes to sociology and sees as incredibly valuable.

If you want to contact Merrilyn, she can be reached by e-mail mcrichton@csu.edu.au.

Produced by Dr Sarina Kilham with support from Charles Sturt University and The Australian Sociological Association for Social Science Week 2020.

Transcript of Merrilyn Crichton

Crichton episode

[00:00:00] Merrilyn Crichton: [00:00:00] We don’t actually live in a vacuum of our own, regardless of sitting on our own, thinking about how we’re coping and all the psychological strategies you see in the media for managing all the stuff that’s going on

     [00:01:00]Sure, okay. Research at the moment is largely about social isolation. I’ve just started looking at some of the work around isolation and pandemics obviously, but particularly rural affects on things like socialization. We know a lot about it from drought research. I’ve done a lot of that in the past as well; water scarcity and drought restrictions and the impact of those sorts of things on mental health.

But now of course, we’re in a bit of a different world and while all of the environmental issues are still very much around, we’re living in a whole different version of social isolation to even what the rural areas have been exposed to in the past. So a lot of my work [00:02:00] at the moment is purely social isolation and how do older people get on with their lives, despite being isolated, particularly people who live alone. It backtracks to some of the work that I did some years ago around mental health and what it means to live in the bush in water scarce times. And I’m hoping that all of that comes together as well, ’cause water scarcity is a big deal in Australia.

But the other part of my research at the moment goes to human rights and mental health and the social development goals-their applications in rural areas and-and resource scarce areas, particularly with respect to mental health and people from marginalized backgrounds, social inequality.  That too sort of bridges environmental issues, droughts, floods, our current climate cycles and all of those things that are really big news at the moment. Also  it sort of bridges all of those sorts of things that we don’t necessarily think of as having a big impact on us individually or as groups, because they still seem beyond us, but in the bush, they seem to really have a big impact on our [00:03:00] psychosocial wellbeing, let alone our physical wellbeing. So that’s my very broad sort of stuff at the moment.

Sarina: [00:03:05] These, Merrilyn, these are all issues that I guess lots of people might stereotypically think about as hard science issues. when we-

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:03:15] Yeah, they are. And psychology, direct psychology stuff. Yeah, they do. Yeah.

Sarina: [00:03:20] So. What can you tell us about, I guess, the big question: what’s sociology got to do with it?Or not pure sociology, why applying a social science lens matters to-

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:03:33] Yeah.

Sarina: [00:03:33] – understanding these issues.

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:03:35] Well, there’s a range of reasons. One is one of the really big ones is that we don’t actually live in a vacuum of our own, regardless of sitting on our own, thinking about how we’re coping and all the psychological strategies you see in the media for managing all the stuff that’s going on all the anxiety stresses and all of those sorts of things.

Those are-we don’t actually live inside our heads. Even when we’re living in this online world, we’re engaging with other [00:04:00] people, we’re social anmals. For many people, of course,  particularly people who are, you know, introverts, they don’t necessarily always realize that what we’re engaging with in every single level, every day, are cultural values. We’re living according to particular rules we don’t even need to think about anymore. We’re applying particular socialization to our own lives without even thinking about it. So we become these innate-I suppose not so much unthinking practitioners, as people who are just living according to things that are going on in the background of our sense of ourselves, that sense of our identities.

But what we’re actually doing is performing those roles every single day, regardless whether or not we’re alone or not.  And in some of the hard sciences, of course, the idea is to be able to measure everything. And I don’t think actually  we challenge the     sciences as sociologists, because we’re still trying to find ways of making sense of the world.

We’re still trying to find systematic methods for understanding what’s going on. What [00:05:00] we’ve come to recently,  and it’s-it’s not the only way of doing sociology, but what we’ve come to recently is recognition of the lived experience  of these events and lived experience among groups of people; our identities as-as gendered and our roles as genderd and sexed or raced or rural-

Sarina: [00:05:17] Pause, Merrilyn, ’cause you’ve started to break up.

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:05:22] Can you hear me now?

Sarina: [00:05:25] Yes.

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:05:25] Is that all right? Is that clearer?

Sarina: [00:05:27] Yeah, that’s fine.

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:05:27] Oh gosh. The connections are nuts.

 Sarina: [00:05:30] So you were in the middle of saying about how we  don’t live in a vacuum.

Merrilyn Crichton: [00:05:37] No, we don’t.

Not at all. So. Yeah. So a lot of these sorts of ideas sort of sound like they’re psychology. And-and sometimes when we look at water scarcity, they even look like economics really. And I think one of the great advantages of having a sociological lens is to recognize that we can’t live in a vacuum. We’re the product of multiple ideas, norms, values, cultural stuff that we live every single day.

[00:06:00] And none of that happens just inside one person. It’s about our gender socialization. It’s about the ordinary living experience that we have, let alone other groups we might be in according to sexuality and age and all of those sorts of things.

In the bush, of course, we’ve got other rules and norms around the culture of reality. That also means that we’re part of a group that looks the same, but its different to  the group that we would  belong to or identify with if we lived in the city. That sort of lens isn’t, to me, divorced from the hard sciences, because there are ways of measuring it. There’s ways of understanding it.

I think one of the things that recent sociology has done-we used to do a lot of measuring, a lot of what many people know as positivist work, and it really didn’t help us to get beyond  that numerical counting of stuff. Instead what it did was sort of bog us down in [00:07:00] categories and boxes.

And what we do when we’re doing sociology in the way that that I do is to get to the lived experience of those things beyond that singular individual and into the experience of these things as cultural, as social, as grouped in multiple ways. Rather than just purely the individual experience or the individual measurement of-of something that’s going on beyond them.

    Yeah, sure. One of the things that we’ve got and we’ve got it happening right now, is that the rural areas have become more and more dependent on telecommunications services, where there’s a lot of things like, mental health support, disability access [00:08:00] for older people. You know, in the cities, you can just duck down the street to a physiotherapist or a class that will help you keep going. In the bush, we’re much less well served by health professionals. Appointment times can take a bit longer to get.  And when you find a really great group to hang out with that can be, you know, the numbers are low or you’ve still got to be able to get around when you become less and less able to drive yourself, you become more dependent on other people.

It happens with people with disabilities of all age,  it happens with people with complex health problems of all ages as well; we end up becoming more and more dependent on internet technologies and telecommunications technologies that aren’t as strong. In the bush, we’re not as well served by telecommunications. Dropout rates are higher. Connections  are slower, all of those sorts of things. And then COVID, what you see is an increasing dependence on telehealth. But also an increasing dependence on telecommunications networks for meeting your social needs.

And so at the [00:09:00] moment, I don’t know the answer to the question in terms of what that looks like for older people, exactly. That’s a project that has just started with a bit of CSU funding, and we’re hoping to get some more external funding. But in the past, the research I’ve done  particularly about mental health at multiple age groups is that people can’t necessarily get the support they need in their area and so start traveling to face-to-face support or face-to-face professional help.  That itself puts an additional strain on income, even where things like telehealth have started to work really well, telephone counseling or video counseling  seems to work really well. You’ve still got to have some level of community engagement, some level of community understanding about things like mental health, which are really heavily stigmatized, and other chronic health problems as well. A lot of people in the bush, in these contexts, feel isolated. They feel socially isolated, they feel physically isolated.  And then, there are only sort of social outlets. The local pub shuts down in something like COVID, [00:10:00] the schools aren’t available for your average every day sort of interactions and things get much more difficult when there’s increasing constraints.

So one of the things we’re seeing across the world, let alone locally, is increased rates of mental health problems, even among those people who haven’t presented before with anxiety or depression or any of the other symptoms that indicate that people’s psychosocial wellbeing is affected.

We know from historical research that social isolation actually makes for poor wellbeing-physical and mental wellbeing. And now of course, that research is really underpinning a lot of what people are finding out about what’s happening for people now in cities and in rural areas.

I think I’ve kind of just jumped around a bit on your question. I think I’ve gone all over the place.

  It is. It’s very complicated question that requires, unfortunately, a complicated and sort of [00:11:00] flooding answer. Sorry.


Yeah. I-I mean, there’s a lot of benefits actually. One of the things that sociological research has done and some of the more positivist stuff, rather than the high science stuff-we’re talking sort of biological sciences and, medical science and those sorts of things. And what they show us is that the percentage rates, particularly of service provision, and when you’re looking at the way that the government has organized the services, it is a percentage of people across the whole country that may require a particular service. And then you’ve got a certain number of-of service providers made available in particular areas, according [00:12:00] to those. What the sociological and the psychosocial understanding social sciences have been able to show is that population modeling doesn’t do as much as more localized modelling, which comes from that experiential data and local data.

So what you see in the bush now, as a result of some of that social science is more services appearing in particular areas.  It’s changed a bit of the model, particularly for mental health in the bush. It’s changed a bit of the modeling for how much face-to-face support is available.

And it’s also sort of changed things, although it’s very slow, in terms of infrastructure and telecommunications, networks to the bush have become a bit of a-a government priority. So while the hard sciences could show that in numbers, the positivist work can show that in terms of  varying degrees of difference and things between urban and city environments or urban and country environments.

 It didn’t really give them a really  [00:13:00] good picture to work with. And that experiential stuff really has helped to change the landscape. You know, when you’ve got people actually being able to say, in research terms, ‘this is what’s going on,’ and policy makers will, so to pick it up, it does, it does change over time.

 So that’s one of the benefits I think, is that it hits harder. Once there’s an experience written on a page or an experience written in a vodcast or a podcast  people notice it more than a number, which really just tells them how much money to spend.

Yeah. Yeah.

    Yeah, right. Yep. And we all take notice of that when those sorts of things appear in the news. We notice those when somebody throws stats around with ‘okay, yeah. Wow. It’s got bad.’ Or-or you sort of dismiss it a bit easier, a bit quicker. Yeah.

 [00:14:00]   Of course you hope to change something about the world. You hope that the work that you’re doing is going to make some difference. I don’t think I’m one of those people who thinks that just because I wrote a paper or I gave a conference presentation, the whole world’s about to change because of my perspective on human rights or social isolation or water scarcity or something.

But, I think there is that hope that, and-and there’s a fair amount of evidence around that says that, you know, the research makes the space for the voices to be heard and those voices become important in making changes in the world. So, I wouldn’t say that it’s my work that does it, but it certainly opens people’s minds up a bit more, particularly the people who are capable of making changes.

And one of the things you notice when you’re doing research directly in communities and you’re working with people who are trying to drive change within communities, a lot of  what  I hoped we during is about community-driven solutions to these problems.

In COVID, that’s really hard to [00:15:00] do, but you know,  you can start having a go. And when you look at that community-driven solutions to local problems work, you can see that the change already happens. Just because people gather together and that’s both a part of their own impetus for change in their local areas and that engagement with research knowledge that then they come to as a result of us showing up.

So, you know, I don’t think it’s one thing that changes the world, in short, but it certainly helps to have sociological background, to have that social science evidence to have that extra bit of the puzzle to promote and engage in real meaningful change.

 Sure. So my name is Doctor Merrilyn Crichton, PhD. I’m located at Charles Sturt University, Wagga in the School of Humanities and Social [00:16:00] Sciences. Where am I talking from at-at the moment? I live in a small town outside of Wagga. And my current role? I’m lecturer and research at Charles Sturt University.

  I don’t know why people think sociology hasn’t got anything to do with it. I suppose that’s just-that’s me. I started sociology when I was-yeah, just before my 18th birthday. So to me it doesn’t make any sense for it not to be around.

 Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. How is it not there?

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