Nadine Hickman helps to run an Angus stud farm near Blenheim, but in 2020 she launched PepTalk, a magazine designed to raise awareness about mental health and give rural communities the tools to navigate tough times.
Publishing a magazine is a major undertaking. Why did you start PepTalk?
I really wanted to empower rural people with the skills and tools they can use to build a healthy mind. The magazine is my vision for how the world can look when people choose to think in ways that help them cope with the challenges and stresses of everyday life.
I also felt frustrated by what I saw happening in society in terms of mental health. We know more about the mind than ever before – there’s so much science and research about what keeps people well – and yet as a society our mental health seems to be getting worse. I felt as a country we still had that real “ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” approach. Healthy thinking is about having the mental skills to thrive in good times and bad.
Tell us about your background?
I’ve been married to a farmer for 17 years. We breed bulls and are also involved in a partnership growing grapes. We’re wintering around 6000 stock units – Angus cattle and trade lambs.
You’ve been through some tough times yourself, haven’t you?
Yes, I’ve personally experienced both the misery of mental illness and also what life is like when you feel as if you’re thriving. I know what end of the scale I want to be living at and that’s what motivates me to help others.
What makes farming so mentally demanding?
I think there are three main challenges. The first is that so much of what happens is beyond your control. The two biggies here are the weather and prices. Farming is probably the only business where you don’t get to set the price of your product, you have to take it and it can really fluctuate.
The second challenge is that the work on a farm is never done. The next job is staring at you out the window. You’ve living there and you can’t escape that.
The third thing is that farmers care so much about what they do. It’s not just a job, they really care about the legacy they’re leaving for future generations. When you’re so emotionally invested in something, it can leave you vulnerable.
I’m sure a lot of farmers would agree with that list, but what can you do about these challenges if you’re super busy?
There are thinking skills you can learn that help people cope when they’re busy and under pressure. For example, “controlling the controllables” is an incredibly helpful strategy.
How does that work?
If you’re feeling stressed out, get a piece of paper. Draw a circle. Make a list of what you can control in the circle and write what you can’t control outside the circle. Then put all your focus and energy into the things inside the circle. If you do everything you can control, that makes it possible to let go of worry. And if we focus on what we can control to the best of our ability, it often mitigates what we can’t control. So, it’s a very practical way to manage stress.
What about managing workload?
A concept we promote in PepTalk is called “ruthless” prioritisation. When there is so much work and it is never finished, you really do have to be ruthless. What that means is not just choosing the most important thing on your list to do next, but also sacrificing something. Make the list shorter.
Many farmers mention that getting time off farm is a challenge. Any suggestions?
It’s about doing what’s possible, rather than nothing. When I think back to when our kids were little and it was just my husband working on farm, it was literally impossible for us to get away for any length of time. But we had a beach close to our farm, so for us time off was heading there on a Sunday afternoon. That’s the beauty of working rurally, farms are in beautiful places, so it’s about finding little ways to make those breaks happen.
How can farmers deal with day-to-day stress and pressure?
There are lots of ways to give your mind a chance to refresh. One simple strategy is mindfulness – just take a moment while you’re working to admire something about your surroundings. Just enjoy being out there in nature, living in the moment.
If you’re really feeling “under the pump”, try some breathing techniques. You might be sitting in the tractor. At some point, just pause and take a long, slow breath and become more aware of your thoughts so that, if necessary, you can change them. Managing stress is often about having the willpower to find more helpful ways of thinking about a situation.
You mean adopting a different mindset?
Yes, mindset is everything in farming. Two people can experience exactly the same problem, but their perception of it, and its impact on their wellbeing, will be totally different. That’s why working on your thinking is important. Your attitude has a huge bearing on your wellbeing.
What’s your message to someone new to all this?
I think when a lot of people think about mental health, they think about mental illness. But mental health is just health. We need to think about it the same way we think about physical health. Just like good food keeps you well, adopting habits like Farmstrong’s Five Ways to Wellbeing improves your mental health. It’s not something airy fairy, it’s a very practical thing that you can do for yourself. That’s why I started PepTalk – to make information about keeping well casually accessible so people feel motivated to give it a go. When you try something for yourself and see the benefit, that’s what keeps you doing it.
Looking ahead, what are your goals for PepTalk?
I want to motivate people to be more proactive about managing the pressures of farming. We have all these tools and thinking strategies that we know help. There’s a heap of science and research behind them that proves that. So, now we need people to prioritise it in their lives – we need to turn the knowing into doing.
What are the benefits of these strategies for a business?
I can only repeat the Farmstrong message – you are the biggest asset on your farm. That’s so true. You can’t do your best or be at your best for the people around you if you’re not in good shape physically or mentally. That’s the reality of farming.