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Rural mental health cases spike in Southland - Story by Federated Farmers in the Farmers Weekly

Rural mental health cases spike in Southland - Story by Federated Farmers in the Farmers Weekly

Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford says he knows first-hand how big a difference it makes to pick up the phone and ask for help.

A combination of financial pressures, flooding, employment issues and isolation took a toll on Southland farmers’ mental health at the end 2023.  

Southland Rural Support Trust wellness coordinator Rachael Nicholson says the organisation received 31 new cases between August and November, twice as many as in the same quarter a year before.  

“We saw a noticeable difference in this quarter and the numbers are much higher compared to past years. 

Financial pressures, personal and business relationship challenges, and pure exhaustion from long hours over calving and lambing all played a role in this.

“Many have been referred to us by concerned family members or others in the rural community.” 

Nicholson says six of the new cases were farmers hit hard by the heavy rain event in September 2023, which caused slips and widespread flooding across Southland and Otago.

Rural Support Trust’s nationwide statistics show that, of all new cases in August to November 2023, the highest proportion was from the Southern region, at nearly 40%. 

Like farmers throughout the country, Southland farmers are under huge financial pressures from high costs and interest rates, and lower commodity prices, but Nicholson says she’s also seeing many farmers struggling because of employment-related issues. 

“That’s particularly in dairy. A lot of farmers are having to go back on the farm to do those day-to-day tasks, like milking, because they don’t have the right staff and that puts pressure on them. We saw a lot of exhaustion in farmers after calving and lambing.”

Nicholson is particularly concerned about the wellbeing of young male dairy farmers in what she calls a “vast” region, saying isolation is a major factor.  

“A lot of my calls were coming from farmers in that 20- to 40-year-old demographic. Tragically, we’ve had some suicides in some of those rural communities. 

“We have a lot of young people coming into the Southland farming sector from other provinces and they’re getting isolated living way out their own their own. Some of these young people don’t know how to cook or look after themselves properly.” 

To help build resilience in young farmers, the Southland Rural Support Trust will be running a pilot for three workshops with wellness coach Samantha McBride, starting in February 2024

“These workshops will give younger rural men tips to grow their self-awareness, tools to improve their mental and physical health, and help to build local connections.” 

Nicholson says that last point – building local connections – is becoming increasingly difficult. 

“In our rural communities, a lot of the halls, churches and pubs have closed, so we’re not getting that community hub that we used to. 

“People used to have time to talk over the fence and have those potluck dinners. I think that’s what we’re missing – that connection in our communities.”

One modern way to build connection is through technology, and the young men taking part in McBride’s workshops will be connected through a WhatsApp group, so they can easily stay in contact.  

Nicholson says most of the farmers calling or being referred to Rural Support Trust need urgent counselling, something the organisation can arrange quickly. 

“We have a great team of professional counsellors we can call on and get people seen within a week, and often the next day if it’s urgent.” 

Federated Farmers president Wayne Langford says he’s devastated to hear about the mental stress some farmers are under in Southland, and in other parts of the country like the rain-soaked East Coast. 

“I really feel for anyone who’s struggling with their mental health. I’ve been there before and I’m quite open about my own personal experience and how isolating it can be.

“When you’re in that place, it can be so hard just getting out of bed, let alone trying to run a farm. It’s tough on your friends and family too.

“There are all kinds of pressures that can lead a farmer down that pathway or put them in that position – some of them are in our control, but some of them aren’t. 

Langford says Federated Farmers do what they can to help when it comes to things like working through unworkable regulations, helping after disasters, or even just bringing people together for a meal or a drink to build a sense of community. 

“But we’re also fortunate to have organisations like Rural Support Trust out there doing great work in our communities. They’re salt-of-the-earth grassroots people who know how to talk through the tough stuff with farmers.”

Langford says that if anyone out there is suffering in silence, they just need to pick up the phone and ask for help.

“Picking up that phone and making the call can feel like the hardest thing in the world, but once you’ve done it, I can tell you from personal experience that you’ll never look back”.  

You can call Rural Support Trust on 0800 787 254 or check out the resources on the RST Website. 

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