Overcoming isolation on the farm – it starts with prevention

This topic was discussed as part of our online Bonfire Q&A on April 20th at 7:30pm, “Overcoming Isolation on Farm”

Steve knows stress and isolation are trending conditions in the Covid world.

And the fifth-generation mixed farmer also knows that these days everybody is stressed about something – from people on the farm to people in every walk of life. The uncertainty of Covid and the restrictions imposed kept us away from others in the community. For months on end Steve almost never got off the farm. He’d lost contact with his mates. He became really isolated and spent too much time in his own head, overwhelmed by his worries.

Unlike serious physical illness, stress and the emptiness of isolation allow you to soldier on, initially. However this is often a mistake because stress is not just an emotional cancer, its physical toll is very real and it is insidious, so you could be a ticking time-bomb without realising it.

Yet Steve, who denied his problems for more than a year, is now a willing advocate for spreading the message that isolation and stress can be prevented; or once they start, can be managed.

“Isolation and stress were my problems,” Steve explained. “My wife had seen it, my father had as well – and both had spoken to me about how I was managing it (or failing to manage it) on several occasions. They could see how deeply fatigued I was by carrying this burden alone. I just soldiered on, but I had started to shut them out.

“For me, the wake-up call came from our 12-year-old daughter. I had jumped in the header and switched it on. I must have completely tuned out for a little while. The next thing I knew Zoe was in the cab with me, shaking my shoulders and when I focused I could see she was terrified.

“I told her it was fine, nothing was wrong. But she started crying and said ‘Daddy, I have been shouting at you for ages’. I had been so exhausted that I’d been asleep at the wheel of the header. Luckily it wasn’t moving!

“My watch showed I’d been 20 minutes, with absolutely no idea that time had passed. Turns out my wife had sent Zoe straight after me because I had forgotten my phone.”

Steve knew he could not do that to his child again. He knew what his wife and the rest of the family had been doing, trying to tell him something critical and urgent. The problem was he had tuned out and wasn’t listening.

“My family saved my life. My daughter snapped me out of my declining mental health. Getting over it wasn’t easy. It was a real team effort, but it saved me, my marriage, my family and our farm.”

The best research – here and around the world – has shown the recognised risks of social isolation for farmers, compounded by stress is a problem everywhere.

In parallel with his medical support, Steve and his wife read the booklet Managing Stress on the Farm (published by the National Centre for Farmer Health). It provided a bullet-point precis of the problems he dealt with on a daily basis – but always tried to solve alone.

“There’s a feeling in rural communities that only mentally ill people go to counsellors or psychologists. That label can be stigmatising and result in those support services not being used. And that was me, the typical stoic, self-reliant male, unable to ask for help when it was so obvious that I really needed it” he added.

Managing Stress on the Farm booklet helped Steve to take positive steps to tackle his sense of isolation, stress, and depression. The first step was to talk about his worries with other people who he trusted and to come up with a plan.

“Even if you only confront one or two issues at a time, you quickly realise each one is like adding another deadweight to your ability to perform at anywhere near your best,” Steve said.

“Just like footy, or any sport, you can actually be coached to overcome your fears or weaknesses. You can learn to be a happier person, be more organised, and have some boundaries. Most importantly, you need to recognise that you can’t do it all on your own – farming is a team challenge and your family and friends need to be part of every step you take on the road to recovery,” he added.

Further reading:

Injuries on the farm can lead to stress, long-term health concerns and loss of income or even fatalities, so preventing them from happening is the best way of protecting your mental health. When it comes to running the family farm, investing in mental health initiatives is not only good for your family and workers, but it’s good for business too. The NCFH is supporting farmers just like you to manage and respond to work-related risks that impact on workplace mental health – these are factors in your work that can affect an employee’s mental health and include high job demands, low job control, low role clarity and more. Managing these factors, means decreasing the risk of work-related stress, which can prevent physical injury, mental injury or even both at the same time.
Find out more about being mentally safe on farm at www.farmerhealth.org.au/campfire.

This blog is part of the Primary Producer Knowledge Network led by the National Centre for Farmer Health to promote mentally healthy workplaces. Campfire, part of The Primary Producer Knowledge Network, is funded by the Victorian State Governments WorkSafe WorkWell Mental Health Improvement Fund.

You can review the online bonfire session, “Overcoming Isolation on Farm” from April 20th at 7:30pm.

*Primary producers featuring in this blog are fictional, but based on research interviews with farmers, and developed with the assistance of the National Centre for Farmer Health