Comment: Waikato dairy farmer Sam Owen has learned from experience about the importance of looking after his mental health. Owen shares his story and his tips for maintaining wellbeing.
This article was first published on DairyNZ's website, reprinted here with permission.
An overwhelming sense of joy or happiness doesn't sound like depression or anxiety, but to me this is one of my triggers.
That's because I know it will usually be followed by an impending sense of "the only way is down from here".
My wife Jacqui and I are 50:50 sharemilkers. We live on-farm with our kids Abbie (13) and Rhys (11). We're milking 260 cows on 70ha (effective), on the W and T van de Pas farm at Eureka, just east of Hamilton.
I'm a DairyNZ Dairy Environment Leader (DEL), and a board member for the Port Waikato School Camp. I'm very focused on getting young people into the sector. Jacqui is also a qualified lawyer who contributes time to the Rural Support Trust. Both of us are passionate ambassadors for mental health and wellbeing.
Now I know what "red flags" to look for
Knowing some of my triggers and learning how to cope with them has been an ongoing process, ever since I had my first real bout of depression 12 years ago. Fortunately, at the time, I was surrounded by people who saw the signs and got me the help I needed.
Since then, I've suffered three or four real "funks". Every one of them has followed a similar path. For me, this is usually an event – or a course of events – happening over a short period, which gets me out of kilter with my normal routine.
Droughts, family illness, money worries and burnout can be contributing factors to what gets the ball rolling. I now know what to look for, and I can act quickly when I see the signs and can usually slow things down or get myself back on an even keel.
However, if I've missed any "red flags" and continue on, other symptoms or signs start to crop up. The signs and behaviours I've listed below are mine. For other people, they could be the exact opposite or totally different.
• Social distancing myself from friends and family.
• Disrupted eating and sleep patterns, although as a farmer these can be an occupational hazard.
• Lack of appetite, which most of my friends will tell you I don't look like I suffer from!
• Trying to catch up on work without planning; and ending up working harder than needed because I haven't got a plan in place.
• Reading and looking at social media far too much instead of communicating directly with people (although if you need to reach out and talk, social media can be a useful tool at times).
• Worrying about the future far too much, instead of focusing on the "now".
• Taking shortcuts and using risky moves or tactics to save time.
Ignoring my bad head space put me at risk
Back in February 2020, I attempted a risky method of coupling on a tractor bucket.
Instead of lowering the bucket correctly first, I tried to budge it while it was still in the air. It dropped, crushing two of my fingers and ripping two nails off at the same time.
Although I didn't realise it then, I was in a bad head space, and this was the physical toll of not taking care of my mental wellbeing. I had to take six weeks of enforced leave off the farm. I realised very quickly that I needed help – and not just with finding someone to milk the cows (thanks to my understanding wife and staff member).
While I was at the doctor's getting the dressings changed on my hand, I decided to talk to my GP about taking some steps to get my head in the right place again.
I knew I needed to get help as soon as possible
The doctor and I discussed options, such as counselling and medications. He also asked me whether I'd had any thoughts about harming myself. I had been in this situation before. I knew that if I wanted to get the most out of it, I had to be brutally honest.
Although I hadn't had any thoughts of self-harm, I was aware that I wasn't functioning properly, and that I needed to get help as soon as possible. So the doctor and I agreed on starting a course of antidepressants.
I have used them in the past, but I'd decided to come off them once I felt better. Not a good idea – the tablets were why I was feeling better! Now I take one small antidepressant each day with my cuppa.
This, alongside recognising triggers and keeping an open dialogue with friends and doctors, is helping me tackle my depression head-on.
Now I'm keeping it simple - "bigger" isn't "better"
Over time, I've learned to be aware of my "comfort zone" and ensure I'm in a good space to deal with any unexpected things that might happen when I step outside it. Stepping outside it helps you to challenge yourself, but you also need to be realistic.
I ask myself, "If I do this and something happens, how hard is it going to hit me? Am I strong enough to go over the brick wall, through the brick wall or should I step back and have another go later?"
As a sharemilker, it's easy to get caught up in "bigger is better", and that can become a pressure too. But now I think, "if you're making a good, healthy profit or income from 250 cows, do you want to go up to 500 cows and have the extra factors and added things that can go wrong with that?"
Those indirect factors that you don't see need to be considered too.
Long periods of rainfall also used to bring on my anxiety and I'd spiral into depression if not tackled early. It's got to the point where, instead, I go, "it's always going to rain and I can't stop it".
What I can do though, is make sure my effluent pump is serviced, that my irrigators are in a good place and the stock are safe and fed – so if things do go wrong, I've got a plan in place.
Sometimes the way to get through those things is simplicity. I know YOLO (You Only Live Once) dairy farmer Wayne Langford – he's gone and simplified his system to the point where it allows him to fill in things when he hits a bump in the road.
We can all help by sharing and supporting
Being proactive, having the support of my family, my team and my friends and considering work/life balance choices carefully – these are all things that help me maintain my wellbeing.
There's some great support there too from the dairying community, and many mental health and wellbeing organisations.
I hope that by talking about what I went through, other farmers – and anyone facing these kinds of issues – can learn to recognise their own signals early, so they can act quickly to get the support they need.
Sam Owen's tips for staying well
• There's no good or bad time to tell someone you're not feeling great.
• The sooner you can seek help or advice, the quicker you can start the turnaround.
• Be upfront.
• Whether it's with yourself, partner, kids, employer, GP or stock agent – anyone you need to tell about what's going on.
• Covering up how you're really feeling takes more energy – which you can ill-afford if you're not feeling the "full hundy".
• Make a list at the start of the day/week, breaking things into three categories:
• Make sure eating, sleeping and some downtime for you and your staff are factored in as a "Must do".
• As employers, sometimes we can forget that our own bad head space can directly affect our team and their mental wellbeing as well.
• Not every job within the farm business has to be done by you.
• You might think it does – and that you're the only one who can do it properly – but delegation is key to managing stresses and workloads.
• Take time out learn new things.
• Learning to use new accounting software or payroll apps can help streamline the paperwork side of the business and allow for more family or downtime.
• Take time to train your team members.
• If you're suddenly unable to work, they may have to function without you.
• Yes, training may take time, but it will pay dividends in the future.
Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 787 254
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.