Counsellor Kathryn Wright is studying mental health in young rural men. Photo: Megan Graham
Studies into the state of mental health of rural New Zealanders are scant at best. Among young rural men it is virtually non-existent, something counsellor and Southland deer farmer Kathryn Wright is about to rectify. She spoke to Neal Wallace.
Each week Kathryn Wright sees the reluctance of young men to express their emotions or admit they are struggling with mental health.
Twice a week the Te Anau deer farmer works as a counsellor at Northern Southland College in Lumsden and says, unlike senior female students at the college, senior male students never seek her services.
This has highlighted to Wright the plight of mental health issues among young rural men, prompting her to embark on a study through Otago Polytechnic, which she hopes will help address that anomaly and improve access to mental health services.
“We have different reasons for poor mental health in rural people than other countries that have been studied in this area, like Australia and Spain.
“From what I have learned so far, young rural men are most affected by interpersonal conflict, relationship breakdown and separation from protective family members.”
Statistics about rural suicide are sobering and highlight a hidden crisis.
Wright says studies reveal that rural people are twice as susceptible to suicide than the general population.
Almost all rural suicides ( 92%) are male, whereas in the general population 75% of suicides are males.
Further NZ studies show that 50% of rural suicide victims are aged 15-40, due to reasons such as the end of a relationship, geographical and social isolation, a lack of social support and poor work-life balance.
Wright said the aversion of young men to seek help for mental health issues continues once they leave high school.
When these young people leave school aged 16 or 17 to work in the rural sector, for many it is their first time living away from home and their traditional family support structures.
She said once they have left home young men can struggle to cope with the pressures of relative isolation, dealing with a relationship breakdown or conflict with their employer, having to work long hours while living on a nutritionally poor diet, capped off with easy access to alcohol, vehicles and firearms.
A perfect storm is complete with the addition of male bravado that discourages men from talking about or seeking help when they are struggling mentally.
“We have a particular problem in NZ that young people fear it as being perceived as weak if they seek help,” she said.
“It’s in our culture.”
The mental health of young rural males is a topic that has not been studied in any depth, if at all.
Her interest was sparked in 2015 when she decided to study psychology and sociology extramurally through Massey University.
Added to that is her love of rural communities and its people and the realisation that rural mental health issues and their specific causes were given such little prominence.
“There has been no study that I am aware of that specifically looks at young rural men, why they have issues and how we can help them,” she said.
Unlike young men, young females have different coping mechanisms and do not tend to bottle up their emotions.
“Females talk more to each other, we share among ourselves,” she said.
The issues facing young rural men also differ from older rural men.
She said mental health issues in older generations stem from the pressures of inclement weather, stock prices, finances, isolation and the expectation that rural men are tough.
There has been a noticeable increase in recent years of pressure among farm owners and older generations from Government regulation and family disputes associated with farm succession.
She said a new, young employee should ideally become a pseudo member of the employer’s family, with owners including them in at least one evening family meal a week.
“It will help with the transition from feeling they are losing all their support systems,” she said.
A young person struggling mentally may start consuming large volumes of alcohol, be prone to anger, become insular and socially isolated and cease mixing with others.
The first port of call should be to a general practitioner who will be able to refer them to a mental health services and prescribe medicine.
If that is not possible, she urges young people to find someone to confide in.
Wright stresses that employers need to make it easy for an employee to seek help.
“If a staff member with mental health issues has an appointment with a medical professional, let them go, make it easy for them to go to that appointment,” she said.
“It will benefit you and your employee in the long run.”
Her message to young rural men who are struggling is that everything has a solution.
“There is nothing that can’t be addressed and fixed even though you may not think that at present.
“You are not broken, you are stuck,” she said.
Part of Wright’s research is an anonymous survey, and initial responses from young rural men is that they feel less deserving of mental health services than others, and that treatment is not available in rural areas.
Both are misconceptions she believes could be linked to the relative isolation of many farm workers, the difficulty of getting off farms to attend appointments and not knowing where to find mental health services.
Wright hopes her research will assist rural communities find and remove barriers to access services, correct myths that prevent young people from seeking help and spread that message throughout rural communities, including to employers.
She also hopes her research will provide treatment guidelines for medical professionals delivering mental health issues in young men.
Following the anonymous survey, Wright hopes to undertake in-depth interviews with a small number of people, which will involve asking some tough questions, including suicidal thoughts.
“We can’t pussy-foot around this stuff, but the research shows there is no link between asking the question whether someone has thought about taking their life and provoking a response,” she said.
The final aspect of the research is to talk to stakeholders and sector leaders.
She said Young Farmers NZ has been very supportive of her project, which she hopes to complete by the end of this year.
The anonymous survey can be found at this link.
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