Mental health crisis in rural New Zealand

By Harvey Leach

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Throughout New Zealand's rural communities, people can be heard saying, "how could he leave his family behind", "what made him do it" and "why did it happen?" These are legitimate questions following the news a person has taken their own life, but there are no simple answers.

For farmers, long hours, isolation, fluctuating financial returns, debt, weather, regulations and the workload are all factors. Additional pressures lead to stress, increased anxiety and depression which, left untreated, can lead to suicide.

As farm debt has doubled, rural suicide figures have tripled. Farmers are buckling under the pressure of an increasingly volatile commodity market.

The figures have increased dramatically at a time where farmers have had three relatively good years. With tougher times ahead, this is a concern.

The rural sector has a disproportionate amount of suicides, with 15.9 rural deaths per 100,000, compared with 10.8 in cities.

Every year about 550 New Zealanders take their own lives and men's suicide rate is three times that of women.

Unfortunately, only two in three people seek professional help and the majority who do not are men, often due to the stigma around mental illness and the word 'depression'. Delaying help makes treatment much more challenging.

Mental health directly affects physical health and mental health needs to be treated the same as physical health, with your GP being the first port of call. We need to change the perception that seeking professional help is weak, when it is a strength.

Gordon Hudson, from Like Minds, says few people have done more to promote this message than Sir John Kirwan, who fronted the original Like Minds, Like Mine National Mental Health campaign and the highly successful www.depression.org.nz, where online help is available.

This year, Taranaki is experiencing a lower suicide rate, which we attribute to an excellent range of programmes aimed at the rural community that have been well-supported. However, the numbers could change quickly.

Graeme Hight, Taranaki Rural Support Trust chairman, says Opunake farmer Paul Bourke's efforts with the trust to establish workshops on depression and suicide prevention have been a great step in the right direction regionally.

More than 200 people have attended the ASIST workshops, many being farmers, Hight says.

Chief Coroner Judge Neil Maclean has also helped by encouraging more open, constructive acknowledgement of suicide in the media. Previous approaches of 'non-promotion' led to suicide being under-recognised and under-resourced. Not acknowledging the seriousness of suicide, or the subsequent loss and grief, has had its day for too many New Zealanders.

Imagine what could be achieved if our politicians recognised and resourced suicide prevention like they do for road accident prevention.

The Australian Government has recognised this and last year allocated more than $400 million to rural suicide prevention. However, allocating financial resources is only part of the solution.

As with so many issues, the answer to reducing suicide primarily lies within our own communities. How about having a rural representative on all District Health Boards?

Closer to home, we need to remember that surviving tougher times is all about caring for yourself, your family, friends and neighbours.

- Hamilton News

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