A day that changed their lives forever

BARRY EASTON
Last updated 12:45 04/07/2013
tdn farm stand
CAMERON BURNELL
TOUGH TIMES: Urenui farmers John and Linda White speak openly about confronting suicide.

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For most people, suicide statistics remain just that. For Taranaki's Linda White, they assume a frightening daily reality.

Four years ago, after a lengthy period of depression, her husband John left the homestead on their 180-hectare Urenui farm with a loaded rifle. He had no intention of returning. Only a desperate and, ultimately, reassuring call from Linda to John's cellphone, which against all odds he answered, averted a tragedy.

Today, both John and Linda are keenly aware of how close John came to adding to the shocking rate of farmer suicides in New Zealand. There were 25 in 2011.

Rather than conceal a near-tragedy by not talking about it, both are determined to speak openly of the incident in order to create a greater awareness of the signs and symptoms of depression which might ultimately lead others to suicide.

Through a raft of farming-related organisations, they aim to better inform rural communities, in particular, farm wives. They want to help them better detect when their husbands are not responding well to stress, and to know who to turn to if this happens.

With the assistance of Fonterra, DairyNZ, the Farmers Mutual Group, Federated Farmers and Rural Women, plus financial support from Like Minds Taranaki and the Taranaki Suicide Prevention Co-ordination Group, they issued pamphlets detailing what to look for and where to go in time of emergency, at the recent National Fieldays at Mystery Creek, Ohaupo.

The group most at risk of suicide has been identified as middle-aged male farmers with mental illness, says Linda.

"There needs to be a collaborative approach right from the general practitioner through to all of the farming organisations and possibly the Government to actually create an awareness of the effects of depression and its possible consequences," she says.

"We need to start to talk openly about suicide and we need to keep the talk going. If we don't highlight the early stages of signs and symptoms for depression, stress and farmer burnout, then suicide statistics will just increase.

"Having said that, in Taranaki we are fortunate that the Rural Support Trust and Like Minds are both active in suicide prevention."

When John considered suicide, Linda says she didn't know who to turn to for help.

"It was only after the first real attempt that I learned how to deal with it - not by searching for hours for John when he had disappeared, but by ringing the crisis team (at the hospital) and the police," she says.

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"This is what people need to do. People need to know that there is a crisis team in all major towns and cities and that they can just phone if they need help. If they can't get any help there, then they have to ring the police, who have resources which other people don't.

"It's all very well saying there are agencies out there which can help but, unless you are actually in the mental health system, it is not obvious who or which organisation to turn to in the event of an emergency."

Perhaps because suicide is a taboo subject there is a lack of hard data on why it is that farmers - males in particular - feature so prominently in suicide statistics.

Stigma and discrimination are barriers to people seeking help and the loss of lives is the result, says Linda.

Reflecting on her own husband's case, she points to a range of factors which place farmers in a different position to males in most other occupations.

"One of the big things is the isolation which farmers are often faced with," she says.

"A lot of people will probably have me on about this but I think that farmers are about the only people who can really multi-task. They probably have at least half a dozen to a dozen jobs on the go, as well as having another dozen in their mind that they have to do. They are working months in advance setting up for the coming season, so they really do know how to spread themselves thinly.

"They are also a plumber, a builder, handyman, an accountant, and then they probably look at being a father and a husband.

"Then there are also the other rural community organisations which most farmers are probably part of - home and school associations, school boards, rural fire brigades and community service organisations such as Lions. They usually want to be involved with these because that's what a rural community does.

"Farmers can reach a stage where it is almost too hard to leave their farms. They can get into a cycle of working and coming home tired while, at the same time, thinking about what the next day may bring. Then, after a short rest, they are back into doing it all over again the following day."

Symptoms of depression may vary from individual to individual, says Linda, but there are certain signs which should be watched for.

"For us, the earlier signs were a change in sleep and eating patterns, an inability to cope; not talking, not wanting to become involved in activities either on the farm or off the farm with the family. John just wanted to isolate himself and it became almost impossible to persuade him to leave the farm.

"At that time, I didn't know those signs were part of depression. It seems silly now, because they were so obvious. "For us, now we are in the mental health system and know how it works, we know what to look for and where to go to ask for help."

Linda says many men find it difficult to talk to their spouse about depression. She has theories about this.

She reasons that there is perhaps a correlation between farmers making decisions and finding solutions on a daily basis on the farm, to an inability to openly discuss with their spouse about what is happening to them at a personal level. "We have been married for 35 years and I think John and I have a fairly good relationship. I thought I knew him really well, but I think men find it really difficult to talk about personal issues such as depression. Farmers probably find it harder than other people, because they are used to being able to solve the problems which they encounter daily and they encounter more than one problem each day.

"If they can't solve a problem, they may see themselves as a failure. Having said this, farming couples do solve problems together because many chose their farming lifestyle so that they could do just this - work together.

"I know for John and I, even though it has been really difficult with mental illness in the last few years, farming remains our passion. We are still doing it because this is what we chose to do.

"But when the signs are there such as excessive tiredness, a sudden unwillingness to socialise, whether it is the farmer or a staff member, someone needs to ask if they can help. Don't just wait for that person to come to you - it doesn't happen. I would stress the point that however bleak things may look at the time, there is always hope and a way through."

- Taranaki Daily News

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