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Getting Started: How New Zealand is taking on mental health

In the second part of our mental health special, Emma Penny looks at New Zealand farmers who are a focal point of the country’s Government which is keen to help improve their wellbeing during times of stress.

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See how New Zealand is tackling mental health with their key initiatives #mentalhealth

With low prices a worldwide problem and little end in sight, getting on with farm work can sometimes seem like a grind. In New Zealand, the Government and other organisations are so worried about farmers’ health and well-being they have instigated several new campaigns to help.


Whether it is trying to help farmers become fitter and more able to do their jobs and live longer, tackling the demons of stress and depression, or providing practical help, there is recognition farmers need help on all fronts.


The NZ Government is leading the charge, with the Ministry for Primary Industries and the Health Promotion Agency launching an initiative, ‘Managing through tough times’, funded with NZ$500,000 (£225,000) of Government money.


It says: “Dairy farmers are facing some immediate uncertainty and this can bring a range of financial and personal pressures. We should not underestimate the toll this can take on farmers, their families, employees and farming businesses.” Nathan Guy, Minister for the Primary Industries, says it recognises there will be uncertainty for months and so it has drawn together a lot of organisations aiming to help farmers.


While some of these are helping provide financial advice, others are concentrating on helping with improving rural health and well-being.


FarmStrong, which launched earlier this year, is based on the premise that while farmers take care of their farm, their stock, machinery and families, they often neglect taking care of themselves, says its founder Gerard Vaughan.


He explains: “We surveyed 400 farmers before we launched. “The most common issues which emerged were how they could get time away from the farm, fatigue, worry and lack of sleep, nutrition and exercise, and dealing with relationships, especially conflict, or with employees.

Doctor's view

  • Adding years to your life and life to your years by managing physiological volatility is the aim of NZ doctor Tom Mulholland.

He is a doctor who has lived through his own personal problems, and says while he was busy telling patients about how to be healthier, the one big thing nobody spoke about was the effect of healthy thinking.


Dr Mulholland is now part of a new initiative helping farmers think more healthily.


He asks: “How emotionally fit are you? How are you controlling the volatility between your ears? Farmers are generally good at looking after land and stock, but when we asked farmers what proportion of their time they felt stressed or frustrated, the answer came out at 42 per cent. This is a big loss of productivity.


To look at how initiatives like Rural+ are helping people who have suffered with mental health, click here


Time off

“Getting time off is essential, as a build-up of chronic stress with no break means you will not make good business decisions. There are also physical impacts of stress, such as higher cholesterol levels.”


FarmStrong has started by launching a focus on healthy thinking, with groups of up to 20 farmers being invited to workshops where they learn specific techniques which they can then share with other farmers.


DairyNZ, which is the NZ equivalent of AHDB Dairy, has a ‘farm fitness checklist’ under its Tactics for Tough Times programme. It asks some searching questions about all parts of a business, from personal well-being to herd resilience, and suggests organisations or publications which could help ‘increase farm fitness for the future’. Better farmer fitness can also help, and FarmStrong, along with a charity called Fit4Farming, has launched a cycle challenge for farmers throughout the country.


They are being asked to pledge training distances from riding, running or walking towards a goal of four million kilometres (about 2.5m miles) in one year, with the ultimate aim of joining in for all or part of a big rural cycle ride through New Zealand in March. The overall goal is to help New Zealand become the fittest farming nation in the world.

“If you or your employees feel unhealthy emotions for 30 per cent of the working day, it reflects at least a 30 per cent loss in efficiency.


“Unhealthy thinking can lead to a large loss in productivity, an increase in personal grievances, lost time, injury, illness and dissatisfaction. “Once you discover and believe changing your thoughts will change the way you feel and you learn to control your thoughts, you are half-way there.”


Dr Mulholland believes writing down the amount of time you spend with each unhealthy emotion can be a useful starting point (see Challenge panel, below). He also says the brain is like a computer – the ‘software’ is the mind and the ‘hardware’ is the brain, which is full of nerve cells.


“Some people do not have enough neurotransmitters and can have low serotonin or dopamine levels, so if you find you cannot change how you feel about life, this might be the problem. But you have to look after the hardware by taking exercise and having holidays, for instance.” The ‘software’ needs a different approach, and Dr Mulholland likens it to ‘disengaging the grumpy unit’. He says: “You can make yourself angry as your thoughts create emotions.


It might be this something triggers a thought, which creates an emotion, then an action and a consequence. To tackle this, you need to work on changing your thinking to change what you feel.


“Think about your triggers – is it work or home? When people are stressed, I always ask what they are thinking about, rather than how they are feeling. We do not know what other people are thinking and there is a big difference between men and women too.


“In the event of a trigger event, look for the opportunity or silver lining. Do not focus on the negatives. There is an opportunity in every challenge, you just have to look for it. Stress and anger will not fix a situation.”


He warns 90 per cent of thoughts which make you feel bad are not actually true, but adds sometimes the problem is how you know whether it is true or false.


“The way to deal with this is to ask yourself four key questions: is the thought positive; is it worth it; what is the advantage of it; and does it help me achieve my goal? If the answer to any of the four is no, then substitute new thoughts for old.


“If you get three ‘yes’ answers, then look at using ABCD: either alert the trigger, bypass it, change it or delete it. This should change the trigger, thought or situation.”


Work out the percentage of each day you spend in each of these 10 unhealthy emotions:


  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Disappointment
  • Frustration
  • Guilt
  • Jealousy
  • Rejection
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Stress


Dr Mulholland says: “The total is at least how inefficient your business is, as unhealthy thinking is inefficient. Thoughts create feelings, so if you change your thoughts, you will change the way you feel.”

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