David Hunt: Pressures of farming almost killed me

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Farmer David Hunt shares his personal story of depression and advocates awareness training for rural GPs.

John Kirwan's association with the depression campaign has removed the stigma of the disease, especially for men. Photo / Supplied
John Kirwan's association with the depression campaign has removed the stigma of the disease, especially for men. Photo / Supplied

Speaking from personal experience and seeing first-hand the tragedy caused by depression in rural New Zealand, it is high time this silent killer is addressed. Farmers have a higher rate of suicide than most, yet they are the most unlikely to seek help.

The stigma around depression for men has been addressed by John Kirwan's campaign, which has had a huge influence on getting people to speak up, but for farmers the message is not getting through. It is of great concern in the rural community and should be acknowledged more widely.

The pressures in farming are pretty harsh; it is a constant battle to balance and stay afloat, with the huge climatic issues and market prices combined with the isolation we face.

Our businesses are reliant on factors out of our control, making us vulnerable to harsher times and feelings of frustration and helplessness.

Farmers as a whole are independent people and like to solve problems themselves, including their health issues. We can be a bit macho when it comes to admitting we need help, visiting the doctor and taking medication to fix our problems is not an easy sell.

I made that mistake, refusing to take antidepressants, and it almost killed me.

In the four years I went back and forth from the farm to the local medical centre, I met several different locums and not one recommended I get counselling. When I said I did not want to take medication, there was no attempt to persuade me, but in the end that is what helped me get better.

You'd think, with my medical records showing four years of visits for the same problem, someone might have taken it a bit more seriously, but consistency of care is difficult to achieve when the under-funded rural medical centres struggle to keep their General Practitioners (GPs). Rural health professionals are the one-stop-shop for rural communities, but their value is not reflected in the resources they receive.

A farming colleague of mine was feeling suicidal and phoned the medical centre for an emergency appointment but was turned down, because they were fully booked, and told to come back the next week. He could not wait that long and committed suicide that weekend.

What is tragic is that if there was better education around depression and suicide prevention, an appointment would have been made available. Better education should be for not only the medical professionals but the community as well - we need to look after each other.

After this our local representative for the Rural Support Trust had his phone running hot with people in the area concerned about their neighbours and their state of wellbeing. This is what we need in our communities - neighbours, friends and colleagues having the courage to acknowledge something is not right and do something about it.

It is important to note it is the little things that push people over the edge. Depression can be caused by either a particular situation or it can creep up on you. Financial problems, extreme weather or relationship breakdowns can get the ball rolling but it is the day-to-day things that can tip someone over the edge.

When you are clutching at straws the little things that go wrong can feel like the end of the world, and when you are miles away from a medical centre with no cellphone reception, the isolation and feeling of helplessness is tenfold.

Medical practitioners need to be aware that if a farmer takes that long drive to town, this could be the only chance to assess their wellbeing for the next however many years and it should not be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, not all doctors are good at dealing with depression; it is a gamble whether you will see someone who is going to put the right information and plan of action in process. I did not get the right care until I went to the city. If there was better education, funding and awareness in rural communities around depression we could start to deal with/prevent the problem, rather than it being a gamble if we are going to get an appointment, or get someone who is comfortable and has the time to deal with a depressed patient. Rural people matter too.

In an ideal world rural medical centres would be able to keep their GPs, who know their patients and give consistency in care.

There would be a full time mental health specialist/counsellor assigned to every district who could do house calls and travel between the district's medical centres. There would also be more suicide prevention and mental health awareness training for rural communities and better synergy/collaboration between rural town medical centres and mental health practitioners in the city.

Sometimes you simply cannot wait till next week.

David Hunt is the dairy chairperson for Federated Farmers Hawkes Bay.

Need help?

Depression helpline freephone 0800 111 757
www.depression.org.nz

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