Lockdowns aside, most of us like to think we have a modicum of ‘control’ over the factors that contribute to our mental wellbeing. 

And for many, the security that comes from a steady job and income rates highly in that regard, as well as a relative degree of predictability about what lies ahead … no surprises being ideal. Also high on the wellbeing list would be supportive social interaction with workmates and peers, and time to enjoy extra-curricular activities.

For farmers (and their families), all of these pre-conditions of mental wellbeing are challenging. 

Often Mother Nature declares the lockdowns! The weather is uncontrollable, capable of erasing production and income at any time (e.g., a single hailstorm). 

Other external factors – lack of farm labour, changing and more demanding regulation, supply chain disruptions – can toss predictability out the window. The sheer weight of what needs to get done – when it must get done in the growing cycle – and not postponed can become overwhelming. More demanding community expectations add pressure. And often farmers and growers contend with all this in isolation – separated from supportive others by physical distance, lack of time, or personal pride and reticence.

Here in Hawke’s Bay, drought has been stressful and the labour shortage has taken its toll as well. One grower commented to BayBuzz:

“Usually the season is traumatic but this year particularly so. People seemed to cope while the battle raged but they have been affected by it. I’ve lost two managers and now quite a few staff are leaving. They are fearful of more of the same and life is too short. My managers have gone to jobs in the sector for less money but less hours and stress. There are lot of mental health issues in the industry at present and I understand why.”

Various reports and statistics document the consequences.

The State of the Rural Nation Survey (2018) found around 70% of rural New Zealanders said they have felt increased stress over the last five years: 54% attributed financial pressures as the main reason. Environmental factors affecting work and livelihoods came second at 49%.

Thirty-seven percent reported experiencing more personal stress from “pressures on my work/livelihood due to environmental factors (i.e. drought, floods, hail)”.

DairyNZ’s survey of its farmers (View from the Cowshed) found that 62% said “they or someone on their farm had experienced mental health issues over the last year”. The causes: regulation changes, financial concerns, public perceptions of dairying.

The Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction (2020) said this about the mental health of rural communities:

“While the prevalence of mental health conditions is similar in urban and rural settings, people in rural settings are less likely to access mental health care. In addition, while numbers are relatively small, data suggests that suicide rates are slightly higher for people in rural areas than in urban areas. Young farm labourers are at highest risk of suicide among the rural population, with isolation, alcohol use and availability of firearms considered to be contributing factors. 

“Sparsely populated regions present challenges geographically as people may have to travel long distances to receive or deliver mental health and addiction services. Slow or no internet connection, limited cell phone coverage and poor roads can also make it difficult to access services and support. Recruiting staff to work in rural areas is also challenging. Often only crisis services are provided, with limited opportunity to undertake preventative work.”

Resources

Fortunately, these issues are getting better recognised and more resources are available to farmers. But one thing that needs to be overcome is farmer reticence. The Rural Nation Survey found that people living rurally are significantly less likely than urban dwellers to consider talking to health professional if they are experiencing stress or anxiety (32% vs 54%). 

One of the most active support organisations is Farmstrong (www.farmstrong.co.nz). Its website provides a treasury of practical advice for coping and maintaining mental and physical wellbeing.

Farmstrong reports that the percentage of farmers who had ever engaged with the organisation is now 31%. This equates with approximately 20,600 farmers and farm workers who have ever participated and 18,100 in the last year (2020). Interest and need is illustrated by the fact that the number of Farmstrong videos viewed in the last 12 months jumped from 108,216 to 328,454. 

But among the worrisome year-over year trends noted in Farmstrong’s most recent survey, 14% of respondents reported their ‘ability to cope with the ups and downs of farming’ had worsened (68% the same), 26% had a worsening of ‘balance between my work and leisure’, 36% had less ‘contact with my friends’, and 24% reported less sleep.

Another key support organisation is Rural Support and its local Rural Support Trusts (RSTs). (0800 787 254, and www.rural-support.org.nz). RSTs cover all aspects of rural agribusiness: 

dry stock, dairy, cropping, horticulture, forestry, poultry, and rural contracting. And all rural people: owners, managers, staff, and contractors. Help can range from personal mental wellbeing counselling to coping with extreme weather events. 

Hawke’s Bay is served by the East Coast RST and the HB regional co-ordinator is Lon Anderson (027 249 5713 or lonanderson32@gmail.com). Farther up the coast the coordinator for Wairoa/Gisborne is David Scott (0272 119 941 or treescapefarm@xtra. co.nz). 

Information and support 

Rural Support Trusts: 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
MPI adverse events: www.mpi. govt.nz/protection-and-response/ responding/adverse-events/
Federated Farmers: www.fedfarm.org.nz, 0800 327 646
Rural Women New Zealand: 0800 256 467
Farmstrong: http://farmstrong.co.nz
National Depression Initiative: www.depression.org.nz 
Lifeline: www.lifeline.co.nz Free 24-hour service 0800 543 354 DairyNZ: 0800 4 324 7969 
HORTNZ: 0508 467 869 
Beef+Lamb NZ: 0800 733 466 
Your local GP
Your local vet 

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