Environment Canterbury staff focus on recognising farmers under stress

When Environment Canterbury land management and biodiversity advisor Sarah Heddell was first approached about becoming a Good Yarn facilitator, she jumped at the opportunity.

The Good Yarn farmer wellness workshops are aimed primarily at the rural community and those who interact with them and help participants recognise and respond appropriately to friends, farmers or customers suffering from stress or mental illness.

"There's been a lot of conversations about it. We were at a farm discussing farm environment plans and the farmer spoke about mental health and said Good Yarns would be really good for us to do. Just for us to be aware of farmers’ mental health and to recognise stress in farmers and communities," Sarah said.

"We'd already been talking about what we could do to better equip staff in their interactions with farmers and how in certain circumstances a different approach could make all the difference, but when someone external also encouraged us, I thought we needed to get on board and do something."

A few months later she was invited to attend the Good Yarn training in Wellington.

Understanding the stress Mycoplasma bovis causes

Sarah, a sheep and beef farmer herself, knows first-hand how pressured the farming life can be and understands the extreme stress the Mycoplasma bovis (M. bovis ) disease has put on farmers who risk losing their stock through the spread of the disease.

"Mental health is something I feel really passionate about. It's such a huge issue and M. bovis has been a bit of a catalyst and a reminder for everyone to think carefully around how they interact with people."

Working in the farming industry, and through her networks, Sarah has become aware of many people affected by stress and depression, which has helped motivate her to better understand how to support those in this situation.

“It worries me when I have calls from consultants who are getting calls from really stressed farmers. That tells me that things could escalate to a situation where someone is struggling to cope.”

"Whether that's us, or a farmer, it's like a bowstring that’s already stretched very, very tight and all it needs is one twang and it’ll snap."

A fluctuating market and the risk of cows contracting M. bovis has added a massive stress to farmers.

This affects a much wider group of the agricultural sector than just beef or dairy farms, it also rolls into the wider supporting community, Sarah said.

"A lot of people are on edge. It's a situation where they're not going to just come out and say it, but it's on their mind all the time because you're looking at it as 'if this happens, I could lose all of that’. We just need to be really aware of this and the potential impact of what we say and do when talking to our communities.”

Focusing on awareness and identifying signs

In June, Sarah attended the Good Yarn training programme in Wellington.

The programme focused on awareness and identifying signs that could require action – whether it’s putting aside Environment Canterbury’s immediate business and just having a chat, calling in professional help, or identifying other organisations that could assist.

Since taking part in the programme, Sarah and three others will facilitate the programme to other Environment Canterbury staff, teaching them to recognise signs of stress and how to respond.

"I don’t want to see any of our colleagues get into a situation where they aren’t aware of how to respond.

"You don’t have to understand what's happening, but it's being aware that other pressures may be impacting someone."

If staff recognising the signs helps a farmer in a difficult situation, then the training is worth it, Sarah said.

"I think it takes Environment Canterbury into a totally new space by recognising the need for this sort of awareness training. We have to maintain the aspect that we are the regulator and we will have to be tough sometimes, but we can work with people and having that empathy helps our relationships."

If you need support visit www.rural-support.org.nz or call 0800 787 254 to talk to someone.