Saturday, March 2, 2024

ALTERNATIVE VIEW: Let’s talk about rural mental health

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There’s a fundraising debate about to be held in Taranaki organised by the Taranaki Rural Support Trust chair Mike Green. 
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Taranaki is one of 14 independent Rural Support Trusts operating throughout the rural hinterland. The trusts are all about “rural people helping rural people,” and we would be lost without them.

The title of the debate is “the merits of farming sheep and beef versus dairy in the Taranaki region”.

The leader of the sheep and beef team is well-known rural raconteur Bryan Hocken. Not known as a shrinking violet, Hocken’s take no prisoner approach will be both entertaining and forceful.

Opposite him in the dairy corner is well-known Taranaki dairy farmer John Washer. Washer is a substantial farmer in the region and was selected as a foil for Hocken.

The adjudicator is another well-known rural personality in Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Rowarth is one of our pre-eminent agricultural scientists, and I can’t help but wonder how much of the various arguments will be science-based.

The discussions I’ve heard so far vary from which farming type produced the most provincial Rugby players and All Blacks, to which is the better class of drunk.

The debate is on the evening of November 19 at the Plymouth Hotel. It promises to be a highly-entertaining affair and a profitable one for the trust. To the credit of the Taranaki farmers, the event is a sell-out, which is great.

Part of the evening will involve selling prints of a painting by Taranaki artist Paul Rangiwahia. The painting is all about wellness in the provinces and is extremely well done. I’m in no position to judge it as a work of art, but we’ll certainly purchase a print.

The work of the trusts is hard, and often thankless dealing with any item of stress in our rural communities. It can be climate in the form of an extreme event, financial, general stress, employment issues and so on.

I’ve been aware of Rural Support Trusts, but know little of the detail of the organisation. Basically, its key role is to “be available to anyone in the rural community who wants any help” and that is a massive undertaking.

Talking to the chair of the local East Coast Rural Support Trust, Neil McLaren was interesting as the current issue is with wellness stress, previously it was financial.

There’s a 0800 number farmers can call to contact the trust, which is also proactive and attends events such as farm discussion groups.

The Rural Trust national network was originally set up by the late Jim Anderton when he was Minister of Agriculture. It is largely self-funding, but gets money from the Government during adverse events.

The sale of Paul Rangiwahia’s prints will earn $250,000. That’s a substantial boost for the NZ Rural Support Trusts.

The trusts get information on stressed people in several ways. Sometimes they will be approached by the person involved, other times it could be a friend or neighbour, rural professional or a person who had visited the farm.

The issue is that there is a strong support network there, it’s rural people helping rural people, and they are very good at it.

Reverend Steve Thomson is a local worker for the East Coast Rural Support Trust. He says he gets most of his referrals on the phone and “he just goes and sees them”. Quite a lot of calls are from farmers concerned about others.

“We’re here to support people, to work through options. We get them to work through their options and put plans in place,” he said.

“It’s important to keep in touch. To just walk along the road with them.

“You don’t judge people, and nothing surprises you.”

The work that the trusts do is vital to the farming community, if largely unsung. A great scandal of our times is the rural suicide rate, the “black dog”.

In the 2016-17 year, there were 22 rural suicides, of which almost half were under 50 years of age, and the majority were between 20 and 24.

For every 100,000 people, 16 will take their own lives in the provinces compared with 11.5 in the cities. It is a scandal made more so by the lack of any rural suicide prevention strategy.

Without our Rural Support Trusts, heaven only knows what that figure may be.

I found the lack of any rural suicide prevention strategy surprising in that we’re being continually bombarded with health and safety messages, along with intrusive visits by Worksafe, yet the greater risk is largely ignored.

By my counting, last year there were 15 deaths by accident in the provinces. That’s somewhat less than the deaths by suicide.

I strongly believe the Rural Support Trusts need far greater resources and support than they get, and good on Taranaki for its initiative. It will be a big night on Thursday.

Suffering from depression or stress, or know someone who is? Where to get help:



LIFELINE: 0800 543 354

NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737

SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666

YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

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