Farming conference highlights depression in rural communities

By Heather McCracken

File photo / Thinkstock
File photo / Thinkstock

Farmer David Hunt has spoken out about his battle with mental illness in a bid to raise awareness of the warning signs for depression in rural communities.

At a FarmSafe conference in Wellington today, Mr Hunt said he chose to speak out after a farming colleague took his life.

"It shook me to the core. There but for the grace of God," he said.

Mr Hunt, who farms 700 hectares in Central Hawkes Bay and Hastings, said his depression "almost cost me my life, and came within a hair's breadth of costing me my marriage".

The illness began with episodes of fatigue and "being a grumpy bugger," and was compounded by stressful events such as the droughts of 2007.

He initially refused anti-depressants and gave up counselling after three visits, instead coping through sleeping pills and gym workouts.

In 2010, financial pressures of a poor Fonterra payout and the death of his father added to the stress, and he moved out of the family home.

"During this time there was a week or so that I couldn't get out of bed. I was very worried and I knew something was wrong but I didn't know what."

This time he went on anti-depressants, and found a more suitable counsellor, but things spiralled downward six months later when he stopped his medication.

He began having frequent panic attacks, which went on for months, during which time he wasn't sleeping or eating properly.

He eventually found a new doctor and went back onto medication but it took time to recover.

"I was sleeping all the time, was incapable of making decisions or doing my job.

"So the family decided to whisk me away to Tahiti. They thought that would be cheaper than a funeral. Taking me away from the environment probably saved my life."

Mr Hunt took 12 months off work, and a three-month motorcycle trip with wife Gladys through Europe helped seal his recovery.

He urged rural people to look for warning signs such as changes in physical appearance, sleeping or eating habits, a drop in farming practices, or difficulty making decisions.

"When a man asks for help he'll usually do it at the last possible moment, and tomorrow may be too late."

Today's conference on rural safety heard farmers are more likely to commit suicide than those in urban areas.

Figures from the Chief Coroner showed rural people are more at risk of suicide, with 15.9 suicides per 100,000 of population in rural areas, and 10.8 per 100,000 in urban.

Research counsel to the Chief Coroner Lily Nunweek said suicide was the leading external cause of death for farmers.

"This is a global problem," she said. "In the UK farmers account for the highest rates of suicide among any single occupation group."

Neels Botha from AgResearch said a Dairy NZ programme providing 'health pitstops' for farmers was helping to screen for physical or mental health problems.

Data from the checks showed 30 per cent of the farmers screened were overweight, and 31 per cent had high blood pressure.

High levels of exhaustion were reported by 21 per cent, and 39 per cent said they were not keeping up with the physical demands of the job.

Mr Botha said people who regularly visit farms, such as vets, should be trained to recognise signs of depression and know how to intervene.

Rural GP Dr Fiona Bolden, who has started a community-based response to rural suicides in Raglan, also urged early intervention, and taking practical steps to keep people safe.

"Most suicides we see are very violent. If someone's at risk, make sure they don't have access to guns."

Where to get help

Youth services: (06) 3555 906

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (noon to midnight)

The Word

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (24-hour service)

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

CASPER Suicide Prevention

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

- APNZ

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