It was heartening to see to New Zealand’s first minister for mental health, Matt Doocey, out at the coalface last week, rubbing shoulders with organisations that are the first port of call for people struggling with their mental health.
Doocey met members of the Otago and Southland Rural Support Trusts and learnt firsthand of the issues and stresses farmers are under, but also the battles organisations such as the Rural Support Trust face as they try to go about their business.
The mental health portfolio was established by the new government to ensure focus and leadership was given to an issue which will impact almost half of New Zealanders in their lifetime.
Doocey has promised to take a fresh approach by partnering with groups and sectors. He wants to use their connections and the trust they have built with those they work with to ensure a better service is provided. He is also pushing for a bipartisan political agreement on mental health services to prevent policy changes when new governments are formed.
Too often – and not just with mental health – months or years of work on projects is thrown out the minute a new political party gains office.
The changes will mean taking funding and service delivery away from head offices in Wellington and diverting it to those working on the front line, such as Rural Support Trusts.
It was timely that Doocey met Southland Rural Support Trust representatives. That region received 31 new cases between August and November of farmers struggling with financial pressures, personal and business relationship challenges and exhaustion. Of the new cases nationally between August and November last year, 40%, were from the southern Southland region.
For years emergency services and support agencies have been concerned they are simply the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff when it comes to mental health, but Otago trust chair Tom Pinckney says the organisation’s success has been about shifting the focus to the fence at the top – getting involved early and offering support before a life is lost.
By supporting activities for farmers, the trust has got farmers off their properties and away from the daily grind.
The much publicised Surfing for Farmers initiative was established in December 2017, when 25 farmers took to the surf in Gisborne. The programme is now run out of 28 locations around New Zealand and last year 4000 farmers took part.
The concept is simple but the rewards are massive.
Stephen Thomson, founder of Surfing for Farmers, told Farmers Weekly last month that the initiative had changed some people’s outlook on life.
During a recent drought one farmer said if he wasn’t surfing he would be sitting at home staring out the window. Others spoke of how the programme has helped save their lives.
Doocey told those he met last week he had heard their concerns “loud and clear” and will take them on board as he settles into his new portfolio.
This new government focus on mental health has a chance to make a difference – but it must take heed of those working at ground level.
Suffering from depression or stress, or know someone who is? Where to get help:
Rural Support Trust: 0800 RURAL HELP
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757
Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Need To Talk? Call or text 1737
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234