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Opinion : Are we doing rural mental health right?

Opinion : Are we doing rural mental health right?

Story in the Ashburton Guardian, written by Registered Counsellor Kathryn Wright who specialises in Rural Mental Health

Photo: Kathryn Wright

In my line of work, I see people at their best and worst.

It can be challenging and gradual but being a part of the experience of fundamental change within someone suffering from mental health challenges, is the most rewarding experience I can think of.

I have spent nine years trying to bring the topic of rural mental health out in to the open and trying to understand and create solutions to the problem.

This has included multiple degrees and original master’s research on the topic – and now on to a PhD, along with working on the ground with this population as a registered counsellor.

If there is one important fact that I have learned on this journey, it is that when it comes to rural mental health initiatives, we are often missing the mark.

It’s an emotional topic, and I had to dig deep to think about how to elucidate such an important message in a way that will be heard.

What we often see and read in the media and other places, positions poor rural mental health in the realm of older farm owners, with concerns around financial pressure and weather as being the biggest risk factor.

While these factors are legitimate, serious, distressing, and even more relevant in other countries, research shows that it is in fact mostly our young men – under 40, in farm labouring/shepherd positions that are head and shoulders our most at-risk population in agriculture.

The main reasons for suicide in this population consisted of existing mental illness, relationship break ups, interpersonal conflict, and physical injury, all potentially exacerbated by separation from family/support networks, alcohol intoxication and easy access to firearms.

Financial concerns accounted for less than 5% of farm suicides in all age groups across the agricultural workforce in New Zealand.

Because this topic (rightly) creates public concern, it is worth considering that many rural mental health initiatives are based on inaccurate suppositions around age and other demographics.

It is also worth noting that in New Zealand, while there are just under 50000 farms, and therefore the maximum amount of potential farm owners, there are 143000 people employed in agriculture that are paid a wage or salary and are not the farm owners.

To address this concern properly, we must train our attention on to young, rural men, under 40 years of age, especially those who may already suffer from depression or other mental illness, particularly if he has just experienced a relationship break up, had a disagreement with his boss, is not near to his family, or is in chronic physical pain.

This is definitely not to say that they are the only population to experience poor mental health and suicide, but they most certainly make up the bulk of the negative statistics, so it makes sense to investigate and target mental health initiatives in this direction.

We must locate initiatives within our rural communities to address and support ALL rural people, but especially our young men.

Community groups such as Young Farmers, Surfing for Farmers, dog trial clubs and sporting clubs are absolutely imperative to preserve and protect good mental health and wellbeing through social connection.

Health and social support services are also important – however isolation may render these as being some distance away from this at-risk population, so this is much more difficult to address.

Becoming aware of what signs and symptoms of mental distress to watch for in young rural men and what to do, could not only save a life but could be the catalyst between a good and bad employer.

Any employer or peer that can read the signs of poor mental health and know what to do, is more likely to offer a positive working environment, and hold on to staff for longer as they will feel valued and listened to.

I have advocated for on-farm training for such an initiative before, and I dearly hope to see a relevant agency step up and provide this much-needed training. It would be beneficial to everyone.

This is an important topic, and it’s absolutely crucial that we do this right by looking at what the research and tells us, listening to the professionals working at the coal face of rural mental health, and homing in on the most vulnerable population in agriculture.

This is more nuanced than taking any old mental health advice being delivered by people with only a lived experience, or from what they think is a good idea.

The life of a young shepherd is just as precious as the life of the owner of the farm he works on.

By Kathryn Wright counsellor.

Kathryn is a fully qualified and registered counsellor with the New Zealand Association of Counsellors (NZAC), operating in Te Anau, Southland


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