Man holding child on shoulders rural farm mental health

Is “prevention better than the cure” when it comes to mental health on the farm?

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Starting July 21, National Farm Safety Week is a timely reminder of how important it is to look after your health and wellbeing. Indeed, the agricultural sector has one of the highest fatality rates of any industry in Australia.

When we talk about farm safety, the first thing that probably comes to mind is staying safe when handling animals, driving a quad or tractor, appropriate PPE, and so on.

Though avoiding injury is an essential theme of Farm Safety Week, long-term prevention is equally important. The old saying “prevention is better than the cure” comes to mind here. This means that it’s better to not have something happen in the first place than it is to deal with the consequences. It’s a principle that applies to all kinds of self-care: eating right, sun block and UV protection, allowing time for medical check-ups — and mental health.


Prevention is better than the cure

Mental health disorders are common. One in two people will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime and one in five will do so each year. The most common disorders are depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders, although others are also common.

Mental health is very much like your physical health — neglecting it may lead to a smaller concern becoming something more serious. This means that the best course of action is generally to actively work on managing stresses and worries before they get out of hand.

It can be challenging to stay on top of your mental health because a concern or worry, may feel like something that can be ignored, at least in the short term. At first it may feel like “it’ll go away”. However, like a physical health condition, the likely consequence of leaving a mental health concern unaddressed for too long is that it could get worse.

In the short term, an unaddressed mental health concern can affect your wellbeing and quality of life. For example, financial stress may manifest as physical and psychological symptoms, like eating unhealthily, drug and alcohol abuse, poor sleep, anger or irritation, and so on.

A mental health concern that remains unresolved for longer may become more serious. For example, stress-induced overeating can affect physical health (which in turn can affect mental health); excess drug and alcohol abuse could affect health, finances or even lead to legal trouble; poor sleep can affect everything from concentration to mood; and anger can damage relationships.

In the most tragic cases, an unresolved mental health condition may result in highly destructive behaviour or even suicide. Indeed, this is a serious public health problem for people in rural, regional and remote Australia, who consistently record a suicide rate (and rate of mental health hospitalisation) far above the national average.


Stresses and pressure of farm life

Australian farmers and agricultural workers often deal directly with challenges that people in capital cities barely encounter. These may include globalisation and economic changes, government legislation, as well as drought and natural disasters.

To that end, Farmsafe Australia, the industry body behind Farm Safety Week, has on its website a section on mental health on the farm which in turn points to this previously published handbook from The Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety. It addresses many of the pressures and stresses of farming and provides sound, practical advice. Much of it is on the theme of managing stresses and worries through prevention.

Some of those practical points include the following:

  • Acknowledging that nobody is immune to stress It affects not only your mind but also your physical health. While a small amount of stress can help focus the mind and concentration, ongoing (chronic) or intense (acute) stress can very much affect health and wellbeing. Simply acknowledging the stress can be the first step to managing it better.
  • Succession planning Setting expectations and having a clear plan for the future management and ownership of the business will remove uncertainty and make decision making easier.
  • Business planning, financial and workforce management Stress and worry can, to a certain extent, be minimised by planning for it. This may include ensuring that everyone involved in the business is across their roles, that leave and responsibilities are clearly communicated, that business goals are defined, and that recruitment and financial best practices are in place. The same also applies when it comes to a viable plan for managing a crisis.
  • Family matters and self-care Family matters may include things ranging from holidays and down time to finances and education choices. Clear and open communication, and knowing how to handle disagreements and conflict in these situations, can go a long way to reducing the pressure.


Getting help

On the Line acknowledges that some people prefer not to discuss their concerns with a family member or face-to-face with a mental health professional.

To that end, On the Line operates several services lines specifically intended to assist Australians in rural and remote areas (along with several lines with national or state-wide coverage). All phone counselling and online counselling services operate 24 7 and are staffed by professional counsellors (On the Line does not employ volunteers).


NQ Connect

NQ Connect provides free online and phone counselling support to people with low intensity concerns in the entire Northern Queensland Primary Health Network region (NQPHN).

Immediately after the 2019 floods across northern and western Queensland, NQ Connect began operating an additional specialist ‘sub-service’ to provide counselling support to people affected by natural disasters. This specialist counselling service is a partnership between NQPHN, Western Queensland Primary Health Network and On the Line.


SA Regional Access

Comparable to NQ Connect, Regional Access provides free online and phone counselling support to people with low intensity concerns in regional South Australia, through the entire Country SA Primary Health Network region.


MensLine Australia

A national service providing phone and online counselling for men with family and relationship concerns.


Suicide Call Back Service

A national service providing phone and online counselling to anyone affected by suicide.


SuicideLine Victoria

A state-wide professional support service for people who are at risk of suicide, are concerned about someone else’s risk of suicide, or are bereaved by suicide.


If you or someone you know needs support, please reach out to one of our counselling services.

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