24 Jun 2015

Rural mental health crisis predicted

3:35 pm on 24 June 2015

The body representing doctors in rural New Zealand is warning low dairy prices, high debt levels, droughts and floods will create a tsunami of mental health issues among farmers.

The Government recently announced $500,000 to improve co-ordination of existing outreach services and develop new support programmes for mental health in rural areas. However, 45 of the country's 200 rural practices are searching for a permanent GP.

Rural General Practice Network chief executive Dalton Kelly said the rural sector faced an extraordinary set of circumstances, and the health system needed to be prepared.

"I think the situation that we're in at the moment, and the situation that's coming, is quite exceptional, and no matter how well you plan and prepare, the thing that you think might happen never is the one that happens, and we've now got a snowball effect," he said.

"Whatever we do, we've got make sure that the farming community are aware of the services that are there already, the fact that they utilise them, and the fact that if they need reinforcing or enhancing then as a country we do that."

Dr Kelly said mental health initiatives and extra government funding were great but finding and keeping doctors in remote locations was a major challenge.

He believed doctors' appointments via teleconferencing could be one solution but said the Government needed to improve internet connections in rural communities first.

"Telehealth is something that works in other parts of the world and it can be a specialist sitting in the Auckland Hospital talking to somebody in Balclutha about their particular issue, but in New Zealand, many of the parts of the country where this would be really useful, they don't have the broadband to handle that capacity," he said.

Hawke's Bay dairy farmer David Hunt, who had battled depression, said he was not convinced the health system was ready.

He also feared the financial pressure some farmers were facing would bring out depression and could create a disastrous situation.

"I'm concerned for dairy farmers. The payout is exceptionally low, financial pressures are huge. The media is saying 40-percent of farmers will run at a loss. I would suggest it's double that," Mr Hunt said.

"My consultant has only one of his clients that does not need the bank this year, and when you take an event like we've seen over the weekend (the lower North Island floods), to add to pressures, it's not one thing that knocks over someone who's vulnerable, it's a series of things."

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