Mental health on farms
Living off the land is very rewarding for many Australian men, however it can also have a negative impact on their mental health. Unfortunately, suicide rates are higher than the general population and non-farming rural males. Farming has a unique set of pressures, with farmers being more likely to suffer from depression caused by financial pressures and isolation.
With early detection you can recover so it’s important to remain connected and look after your mates.
Identifying the signs can be hard and you need to know what to look out for; and what to do if someone you know is depressed or suicidal.
Signs of depression include:
- low self esteem
- low motivation or energy
- insomnia - difficulty sleeping and feeling tired
- difficulty concentrating or keeping focus
- inability to control your emotions - such as sadness or anger
- loss of enjoyment in socialising and doing things that previously made you happy
- changes in appetite and weight or decreased libido.
Depression may seem scary but there are some things you can do if you suspect that you may be depressed:
- talk to your family or friends and tell them how you feel
- speak to your doctor or a trusted medical professional
- seek information and support online
- complete Beyond Blue's depression checklist.
If you feel suicidal, seek help immediately.
Speak to your doctor, friends or family, or call one of the 24 hour helplines listed below:
Deputy Commissioner of the Mental Health Commission of New South Wales, Allan Sparkes who was raised in rural NSW has faced his own mental health issues throughout his life. He developed two mental illnesses following his 20 career as a police officer.
Allan is the only Australian to be awarded Australia’s highest civil award – the Cross of Valour and a subsequent Australian Bravery Decoration, the Commendation for Brave Conduct.
“I was very successful with my work and was playing sport at a pretty high level, I had great relationships with friends, my wife and daughter and there really was nothing to complain about.”
The pressure of Allan’s police work grew and after being involved in a number of high pressure situations in close succession he developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and became suicidal.
“I had a never-ending playing of events in my mind about the things that I had seen and been involved with at work. Whether it was during the daytime or at night, I couldn’t close my eyes to go to sleep,” he said.
Fortunately, Allan sought professional help and recovered from his illness.
Allan is now a Beyond Blue Ambassador and helps those suffering mental health issues and depression in rural and remote areas around Australia.
Allan can relate to rural communities, having grown up in a rural town and has worked as a jackaroo, a wool presser and a shearer. He has maintained strong links with his hometown and has witnessed the huge changes that have taken place in the farming industry over the years.
He says technology has caused issues for men in rural and remote communities. There are fewer interpersonal social connections which contributes to the depression and mental health struggles in rural and remote Australia.
“About 50 years ago, most farms were run by families with the addition of one, possibly two other families living and working together on the farm,” Allan said.
“Each farm had its own unique community and there were always people who lived on the land, which immediately created a social dimension to farming and a support network.”
Technology has removed that and “farm workers are no longer needed and the synergy that once existed has disappeared so the core of small farming communities has been essentially ripped out and people are left feeling unconnected and stressed.”
Loss of support networks
Farmers often work in isolation and can sometimes go days without seeing another person.
“This puts a huge amount of pressure on the individual. Nowadays, farmers often don’t have anyone to work with, solve problems with or share in the distress that comes with losing crops, drought, shifting weather patterns, inconsistent prices, ever rising costs and ever lowering of profit margins.”
“This kind of isolation, combined with the nature of the work itself and the current economic reality for farmers, can make it easy to feel a sense of hopelessness and an acute fear for their future and the future of their farms and family life.”
Allan says it’s important to identify triggers because, “we know that statistically, rural and remote areas do have a higher rate of suicide and a higher rate of mental illness.”
By identifying the triggers, we can give people the tools they need to be able to take care of themselves, their families and their mates during a time of crisis.
“It is important that people in our rural communities are educated about the impact their work environment is having on them” Allan said.
Even a simple program about the correlation between poor sleep and excess alcohol consumption in leading to depression and anxiety can be a huge step forward to reducing burnout rates amongst those working in this environment.
Allan emphasised the importance of “educating and informing so people can be proactive and empowered to take care of their own mental health.”
“While farmers have always been acknowledged and respected for their exceptional ability to survive, they deserve to be given every bit of information and knowledge that is available, to assist them to continue the way of life that is critical to our society as a whole.”
Depression is far too common among farmers and their families.
Former farmer from Burra in South Australia, Bill Stockman, battled the mental illness for 30 years after a farm shooting accident when he was a teenager.
With his own experience, Bill understands the struggles farmers go through on a daily basis.
Isolation and loneliness
“In the past, farmers worked with their families and a lot of travelling salesmen and bank managers visited the farms,” Bill said.
“These days one machine does the whole job and everything is online, which has left farmers more isolated than ever.
“The isolation leads to blokes sitting on the tractors for 24 hours a day and all they do is think. If they’re having a tough year, a lot of these thoughts aren’t positive,” he said.
Bill says depression can be a huge danger to farmers when they’re working because it prevents the ability to concentrate and leads to unproductivity.
“You lose all motivation, you can’t concentrate on your work properly because your mind wanders off everywhere else, you get anxiety and everything that comes along with it,” he said.
“I busted my hand open with an angle grinder once, it exploded in my hand because I just wasn’t concentrating,” he said.
Bill says farmers who battle severe stress and depression struggle to find a way out because they’re proud and can’t see themselves doing anything else.
This can lead to them taking their own lives.
Bill remembers, “after I had my own experience with depression, I actually had a couple of friends who were farmers take their own lives. They struggled with the stress of their farms and marriage breakdowns,” he said.
This was a turning point for Bill and he knew he had to raise awareness of depression and suicide among males.
Ski for life
‘Ski for Life’ was born out of his desire to help others and is funded by the Australian Institute of Male Health and Studies (AIMHS).
The fundraising allows AIMHS to set up Men’s Watch programs which equip men with the skills to support and mentor others who are struggling through rural and regional Australia. The three day, 450km water skiing relay runs along the Murray River during March, with the next one scheduled from the 8th until the 10th of March 2019.
Some of the Men’s Watch services include running crisis help lines across Australia.
“These services are brilliant, you are guaranteed to speak to a person, whereas with a few of the others you might get put on hold, which is not ideal when someone’s thinking about taking their own life,” he said.
Bill’s advice for anyone going through a hard time is just to talk to someone.
“Once an old farmer called me and the poor thing could hardly talk, he was trying to tell me that he was struggling with post-traumatic stress. By the end of the conversation he wasn’t stuttering anymore, he was calm and was thinking rationally,” he said.
“This is why it’s so important to encourage males to talk to one another, we need to break down the barriers and reduce the stigma around depression and suicide so we can save lives,” he said.
Bill says the key is education, starting with the younger generations and that way people will feel more comfortable seeking help.
Next time you're with your mate, ask him if he is okay. You could save his life.
Ski for Life founder and farmer
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or seek help by using the online crisis support chat between 7pm and midnight.
Steve, a second generation cattle farmer from Trangie has been through some tough times. He shares his story of how he was looking out for his father when he realised he was showing some signs of depression himself and how he sought help.
Malcom, a farmer from the Riverina talks about the emotional effect drought has on farmers. He encourages farmers with mental health issues to talk to others including organisations such as Beyond Blue and says you may be surprised to learn that others are going through the exact same thing.
Lisa, a mixed crop and livestock farmer from the South West talks about the impact depression and mental health can have on the wives of farmers.
She chats about how the women on farms look after the accounts, the kids and their husband which often leaves them vulnerable to being the secondary sufferer of depression.
She says they’re trying to hold it together for everyone else in their family and wider community and emphasises the importance of taking time for yourself.
- The Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety’s resource, Managing the pressures of farming has tips to help you identify and manage the most difficult pressures on your business, your family and yourself
- The Centre for Rural and Remote Mental Health has contacts so you can get help if you’re at risk of mental health issues
- Beyond Blue has services available for men in rural areas
- rural workers tell their stories in The Land’s Glovebox Guide to Mental Health of how mental health issues have affected them and what you can do if you’re going through the same thing
- if you feel like something’s not quite right with someone, they may need some extra support so find out how to ask R U OK?
- Business in Mind has several informative videos on dealing with mental health issues.
- for farmers: National Farmers Federation (NFF)
- for commercial fish operations owners: Commonwealth Fisheries Association (CFA)
- for forest products growers and support: Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA)
- for agriculture and fisheries workers: Australian Workers’ Union (AWU)
- for forestry workers: The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU).