Rural life, and agriculture is driven by changing seasons that dictate on-farm tasks and operations and busy times can mean pressure on owners or employees.
Stress-triggered depression has been a growing problem in rural New Zealand for 10-20 years. Department of Corrections research for the coroner’s court found that between 2008 and 2011 the number of rural suicides had tripled, averaging 25 a year – a rate 50% higher than the national average.
Manikam told a meeting of the Northland branch of the New Zealand Institute of Primary Industry Management in Whangarei on April 16 that things could get worse over the next year.
She says the growing pressure of dry summers, increasing environmental compliance requirements, employment and health and safety issues, and falling prices for New Zealand’s export products are making farming more and more stressful.
“When you’re carrying around so much stress all the time, something has to give.
Farming has changed in the last 50 years from a very physical enterprise into one where owners, managers, sharemilkers and contractors need to be on the ball about what is happening in their business to succeed, she says. “We are not designed to live with that level of stress. We’re like a balloon: you can’t keep blowing it up or it will pop.”
While farming has changed, the community and mindset around it is slow to catch up, says Manikam. People in the rural community are largely not fully aware of the physical and mental impacts of prolonged excessive stress. As a result, mental wellness is not rated as strongly as it should be.
That changed seven years ago, partly due to former All Black John Kirwan publicly saying he had struggled with depression, and partly due to the rural community losing 23-25 people to suicide a year for three years – many more than from quad and tractor crashes combined.
“Now it’s not so much ‘is there a problem?’ or ‘should we do something about it?’ It is more ‘how do we deal with it?’ “
Over 10 organisations have worked on the issue including Farmers Mutual Group, Rural Women, Federated Farmers and Worksafe. “The awareness is out there in the rural sector but it’s hard to know when [we will reach] a tipping point at which stress-related issues are normalised and everybody knows the symptoms and how to treat them without having any stigma attached.”
Work by a group of concerned Southland rural advocates (The Elephant In The Room – TATE) reasoned that one way to do that was by approaching farmers who had previously had depression, had successfully worked through it and were prepared to talk about their experiences publicly.
“All the research shows that the best way to reach farmers is through their peers. It would be great if farmers of every region who have had stress-related issues including depression could tell their story in local newspapers to help remove the stigma.”
Farmers have a culture of being self-reliant and that culture combined with the belief that they should grit their teeth and ‘get on with the farmwork’ even in the face of growing stress are among the biggest hurdles to combating depression in the rural sector, Manikam says.
Those suffering were likely to isolate themselves from friends and family, focusing more effort on their problems which are often difficult, if not impossible, to control. “Negative thoughts tend to feed on themselves.”
Sufferers were also likely to not want to do things they previously enjoyed, feel guilty for things they had no control over, forget things or have difficulty making decisions or constantly worry about little things.
Manikam says changes in sleep patterns, moodiness, headaches and exhaustion were also common.”
Family members and friends could be likely to spot a sufferer before that person comes forward and it is important that signs aren’t discounted if things go on too long.
“Most experts in the field agree that if anybody is having rapid mood swings or has been down for any period longer than two weeks then something should be done but every situation is different so it depends. You wouldn’t want to see someone unhappy or at risk so it makes sense to do something as soon as you can.”
Family members who have spotted anybody expressing thoughts of ending their life, giving away possessions or displaying feelings of hopelessness should look for help as soon as they possibly can she says. “Call the Suicide Crisis Helpline or the Rural Support Trust; they will be able to help you find a way to approach the problem or put you in contact with people who can help.”
Family members and friends need to be careful when approaching the topic: too blunt an approach can lead to a sufferer withdrawing further from others. “The last thing we want to do is to take another person out of their support network.”
Signs to look for
- Disinterest in hobbies and sports they normally enjoy
- Violent mood swings
- Apathy and or listlessness
- Issues with concentration and memory
- Risky/careless behaviour
- Alcohol/substance abuse.
- Changes in you sleeping patterns
- Changes in your eating habits
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of enjoyment in something you normally enjoy
- Constantly feeling anxious or stressed.
Lifeline 0800 543 345
Depression helpline 0800 111 757