Norco, Australia’s oldest and largest 100% farmer owned dairy co-operative, is taking important steps to support farmer mental health by introducing a dedicated telephone service for farmers struggling with their mental health.
Part of Norco’s Employee Assistance Program, the new initiative was implemented in response to the 40 per cent increase in community referrals compared to last year, with heightened pressure being felt by farming families after the devastating floods earlier this year.
Unfortunately, farmer mental health is not a new issue. A report commissioned by the Australian Counselling Association titled the ‘National Regional Check In’ found two thirds of farmers have experienced feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression in the past two years.
Added to this, when in need of support, two in three farmers had to wait up to three weeks to speak to a professional. Concerningly, Australian farmers are twice as likely to commit suicide when compared to the general population with one farmer taking their own lives every 10 days.
Leading the new program, fellow Norco farmer and Lifeline Crisis Support volunteer Ross Blanch, has spoken to over 40 farmers this year, noting that their mental wellness has declined since this time last year.
Increase in social anxiety
According to Ross Blanch, farmers are still suffering from shock following the severity of the floods, resulting in self-isolation and reclusion from social events – which only amplifies issues of mental health.
“I have noticed that many farmers are socially distancing themselves from their communities. Where there was once over 100 farmers attending industry events, we’re now lucky if there are 15,” he said.
“The new program with Norco works brilliantly because we know farmers are open to talking about their mental health if it is with a fellow farmer who understands and knows the daily struggles they go through.
“I just drop in for a chat and because I’m a farmer also, they tend to open up at the end of the conversation and their whole tone of voice changes,” Mr Blanch added.
Dr Mark Callow, Norco Milk Supply Manager, expressed that the 2022 east coast floods were devastating for dairy farmers, as they threatened their lives, properties, livelihoods and cattle – which is why dedicated programs of this nature are so important.
“One of the main messages we want to share with other farmers – and indeed the broader farming community – is the importance of mates talking to mates, and doing what we can to look out for each other,” Dr Callow said.
“We’re privileged to have Ross on board to lead this program, knowing that he can connect with farmers, by speaking openly and honestly about his own personal experiences, and how he maintains his own mental wellness.”
The need for greater access
Dr Callow said the motivation to take positive action and establish this new program was amplified by learning how long farmers, and those living in rural and regional Australia, were waiting to speak to a mental health professional.
“Having to wait up to three weeks to speak to a professional is simply not good enough, let alone at such a critical time as when mental health support is needed,” he said.
The Australian dairy industry is the fourth largest rural industry, making it an important contributor to the Australian economy. By prioritising farmer mental health, Norco is taking real steps to safeguard the future of the farming industry, and ultimately, help save lives.
Dr Callow adds that the floods truly tested the resilience of their farmer members and their ability to manage and cope.
“Providing mental health support to our farming community by giving them the opportunity to talk to a trained and likeminded farmer has certainly been well received.
“And at the end of the day, we simply want them to know that there’s somewhere to turn and someone they can relate to when in need of some extra support,” he said.
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