15 Jun 2017

Rural mental health: 'People are suffering in silence'

11:21 am on 15 June 2017

The mental health of New Zealand's rural communities is at a tipping point, a mental health expert says.

Mark Eager, chief executive of Mobile Health, and runs the national mobile surgery bus and has helped create the Rural Health Hub at the National Fieldays in Hamilton this year.

The bus has been running for 15 years and carried out more than 21,000 operations in 24 towns.

Mark Eager in the mobile surgical bus.

Mark Eager in the mobile surgical bus. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Mr Eager said mental health was a big area of concern in rural communities.

"Mental health is really at a tipping point in New Zealand, there's a lot of people with a lot of issues that don't know what to do, so people are suffering in silence a lot of the time.

"Often the first thing we hear about is a suicide or attempted suicide.. Here at Fieldays what we're trying to do is to raise the awareness - it's not such a bad thing, you can access help."

There is a huge variety of caring people from primary health care, GPs, nursing services, and the Rural Support Trust, Mr Eager said.

"It is very hard to reach people, you'll often have a public meeting where you are talking about health and the room will be full - but what you need to look for is who is not in the room... often it's those people who don't ask for help."

He said access to health care remained the biggest problem in rural communities.

"It's really hard for people in rural areas to get the information they need, when they need it. That could be an appointment with a doctor or even knowing whether the mole on my arm is a melanoma."

The Rural Health Hub at Fieldays has several doctors who can test for diabetes and cholesterol, check moles and talk to people.

When the hub was opened on Wednesday, Minister for Health Jonathon Coleman and Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy announced another $500,000 of funding for 'rural mental wellness'.

Jonathan Coleman and Nathan Guy outside the mobile surgical unit.

Jonathan Coleman and Nathan Guy outside the mobile surgical unit. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Mr Guy and Mr Coleman have made similar announcements at the past two Fieldays, which takes the funding up to about $1.6 million over the past three years.

New youth documentary on mental health

Young Farmers are launching a number of mental health initiatives, including a documentary, at this year's Fieldays aimed at suicide awareness for young rural people.

Several of their members have come forward to share their stories on depression for the documentary in an effort to try and reduce suicide rates.

Young Farmers chief executive Terry Copeland said research showed that young male farm workers were more at risk of depression, and suicide rates were higher in rural men than urban men.

Terry Copeland.

Terry Copeland. Photo: RNZ / Alexa Cook

Young Farmers is trying to tackle the problem head on, said Mr Copeland.

"We want to reduce that suicide rate. The first thing is to de-stigmatise it, so make it commonplace for people to talk about suicide ... It shouldn't be any different from talking about any other health issue."

There was a real reluctance, particularly from young men, to talk about how they were feeling mentally, Mr Copeland said.

He said the documentary was made with broadcaster Rob Cop-Williams and was an attempt to be transparent around the issue.

"There's a couple of case studies of people who have gone right through the whole feeling suicidal and the whole mental health and how it affects their families, their work and how they've come through the other side - so it's actually a really positive story."

The rate of suicide in young men was alarming and needed to be reversed, Mr Copeland said.

"From a Young Farmers point of view, it's a really big issue to tackle and take the lead on... In my own family situation, my sister committed suicide, so from my point of view I want to drive it hard... I know what it feels like for those families out there."

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.