A Pocket Guide to Rural Mental Health

by Karen Nimmo, clinical psychologist

We’re all managing stress – no-one gets through life without it.

But rural life has a unique cluster of stress – from the weather, to financial pressure, isolation, and constant uncertainty – all of which can place huge strain on couple, family and staff relationships. As small herd dairy farmers, you’ll also have stressors specific to your situation.

Significant rates of depression and suicide in rural communities are now widely acknowledged – and this has led to greater awareness, funding and some excellent new rural mental health initiatives.

But there’s still a long way to go to improve mental health and emotional wellbeing on the farm.

It’s vital that people feel able to recognise and speak up when they’re really struggling – and/or they know how to access professional help when they need it.

But it’s equally important that each person does all they can to maintain their own mental fitness, build resilience for the tough times, and to pass on what they know to their kids and wider families.

How to know when things are not okay

Stress in even one key area of your life can take a hefty toll. And when it comes at you from all directions, it can eat you up physically, mentally and emotionally.

Broadly speaking, stress can be divided into three types:

  1. Shock— like an injury or sudden illness. An event that comes at you unexpectedly or from left field (e.g. rugby’s Damian McKenzie’s World Cup dreams going up in smoke with a knee injury).
  2. Slow burner— when the stress is constant and ongoing (e.g. when your marriage is in trouble, somebody you love is struggling with alcohol or gambling issues, difficulties with your kids, ongoing financial pressure).
  3. Super combo— when the slow burner stress suddenly turns serious (e.g. when a chronic illness suddenly gets serious, or a struggling relationship ends in separation, or things are not great on the home front and you have a bad season).

Beware the perfect storm

That’s what psychologists are always looking for. It’s when all, or several pieces, of your life are out of whack at the same time. So if you, for example, have struggles with your herd, on the farm, and in your personal or family life all at once, put extra effort into your self-care (see below).

Red flags for mental health difficulties

Red flags, or symptoms, are the earliest signs of stress overload and overlap with depression and anxiety. We all experience some of these symptoms from time to time so there’s no need to panic. But take note if you experience five or more of these at any one time AND if they don’t begin to lift after a few weeks, especially when they’re beginning to affect your health and key relationships.

  • Sleep problems  – wakeful or disrupted sleep. Always feeling fatigued on waking.
  • Changes in eating, exercise habits, weight.
  • Physical health problems (headaches, stomachaches, frequent colds/flu, unexplained aches and pains).
  • Irritability – lower than usual tolerance.
  • Racing thoughts, can’t settle, going over and over a problem, excessive worrying.
  • Relationship problems, fallouts with people.
  • Extreme agitation and restlessness.
  • Increased, unhealthy use of food, alcohol, cigarettes, substances.
  • Extreme fatigue, lack of energy.
  • Concentration and decision-making problems.
  • Loss of interest in things/people you used to enjoy. Struggle to have fun.
  • Feeling constantly overwhelmed, like you’ll never get on top of everything.
  • Avoiding people and activities (especially things you used to enjoy).
  • Still feeling low or flat after a break or holiday.
  • People saying they have noticed a “change” in you. Ask them what they’ve noticed; sometimes when we are struggling we either deny it, don’t notice that it’s crept up on us, or is making itself part of our personalities. Those close to us often notice first.


14 ways to look after yourself

Here are 14 evidence-based protective strategies that can be applied generally in life. It’s best not to wait until you’re struggling to put them in place. It’s easier to lock them in (and get used to them) when things are going well.

Eat, sleep and move

Obvious, but important. Eat healthily (and in the right proportions), get the rest your body and mind require through adequate sleep and by switching off your screens. Farmers don’t generally need to be told to “move” their bodies physically  -  but it’s just as important not to thrash your body either. Look after the basics and the basics will look after you.

Lock in routines

Having routines at the beginning and end of each day can help you feel anchored and focused. Routines are helpful in managing depression, pain and anxiety, when you want to “reboot” your life or when you want to be more productive. If your morning routine is taken care of by milking, ensure you have a routine for after you finish your working day. Having a relaxing routine for 30 – 60 minutes before you go to bed can assist sleep.

Set good boundaries

For anyone whose life and work are closely connected, it can be hard to “get away” from the demands of work. And when your work is right outside the door, or on the laptop, there’s always another task you can do. So it’s helpful to set boundaries so you feel you are getting a break — and your family does too! e.g. set a time for stopping work and stick to it (within reason). There will always be more to do so be clear about your priorities and try to have some down time. Do something physical to put a line between you and work like taking a shower, or putting on clean clothes.

Know your strengths

Can you name your top three strengths, both in your farm role and as a person? It may be harder than you think, but persist! Ask yourself whether your lifestyle allows you to use all three of these, because your strengths are what make you unique.

Look after your physical health

Stay fit and strong. Maintain a healthy weight. Get your regular medical checkups. Don’t put your head in the sand if something seems a bit “off”. Get it checked. Because when your health goes, you’re deep in it.

Have something to look forward to

Ask yourself what you’re looking forward to this week? Next month? This year? Make sure you have some short term goals in place that are NOT all about work. Make some for yourself and, if you have a partner, sit down with them and make some joint plans.

Get outside the bubble

Do you have other interests outside your farm life? Make sure you create time for them. Say yes to things you enjoy. If you’re feeling flat and nothing feels particularly enjoyable, push yourself to say yes to things you used to enjoy. You will feel better after doing something.

Say no sometimes too

Life can get pretty crazy, especially when there’s not much space between work and play. So say no to extras that will create stress, things you think you “should” do and endless demands that take you away from the things and people that are really important to you.

Connect with others

Isolation is a major contributor to mental health problems  –  and social connections are a great protector. So create opportunities to connect, talk, have a drink/meal with other farmers, families, rural communities — and just friends.

Have a mentor or advisor

As well as being lonely at times, you can get stuck on a particular problem or issue. Having someone who you can go to for advice, or just share the load (outside your partner) can be hugely helpful.

Keep your thinking flexible

The ability to be able to adjust/adapt to difficult circumstances is arguably the biggest factor in building and maintaining resilience. So when things get tough, try not to cling to one point of view or one way of doing things. People who can adapt can move mountains.

Resolve conflict

Conflict doesn’t have to be settled right at that minute but figure out a way to work through your issues –  or get help to do so. Ongoing conflict with people you care about is terrible for your mental health and happiness.

Have a laugh

There are many heart-warming war stories to remind us that even in suffering life doesn’t have to be all bad, it is still possible to lighten up and have a laugh. Even when you’re going through stress, check you can still see the fun in things.

Be grateful

It’s an old cliché but it works. Train yourself to start or finish each day by naming three things you are grateful for. It will take you outside your own head and focus on what’s good in your world.

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