Farm suicides: When the pressure and uncertainty become too much

A changing climate, harsh industry and constant safety fears can cause depression in the farmers and workers feeding South Africa and propping up rural communities

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When farmers in rural areas fail to meet their desired milestones, they become consumed by a feeling of complete despair often leading to depression and suicide, says Christo van der Rheede, Agri SA’s executive director.

Gift of the Givers, an NGO that has been assisting drought-stricken farmers across SA recorded eight suicides by farmers that were driven by drought between 2014 and 2019. The founder, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, in a press statement revealed that two more suicides were suspected to have been due to drought.

Sooliman disclosed that several more farmers had suffered heart attacks due to the stress of no longer being able to provide for their families, their workers and their flocks or herds.

Siviwe Tikana on Rosendene Dairy Farm
Siviwe Tikana on Rosendene Dairy Farm

Siviwe Tikana, a dairy farmer who is also the general manager of their family run business, Rosedene Dairy Farm in East London in the Eastern Cape, says this is still a prevailing issue amongst farmers in South Africa.

He shares that the uncertainty of not knowing if he will be able to make enough income for the month to run their farming enterprise often leads to depression.

“It’s a risky business, because we are faced with horrible climate change globally. Our rain no longer comes in the seasons we are used to and that adds to anxiety. We do not know if it will get the predicted yield that we wanted or whether it is going to rain during the times that you need it to.”

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Tikana adds that the unpredictability of commodity prices is also a driver of anxiety and depression.

“You don’t get the prices that you aimed for. I mean, that’s just normal entrepreneurship, but for farmers it is kind of a low blow because our industry and our pricing hardly changes. I’ll be speaking on behalf of dairy farmers. Our milk prices have not changed in years,” he says.

“So, you can’t really aim to be making a profit because you will be getting lower prices for your produce and your product. While you have got debt mounting up that you owe to the banks or even an investor. So, the finances are a huge contribution to anxiety,” he explains.

He indicates that their financial issues trickle down all the way to their farm workers.

“You have got staff that you need to pay and honestly it is not just yourself and your family that you are looking after. You are looking at ten other families and it really just gets too much to the point where you don’t want to get up from bed and just be in a dark room.”

This feeling of despair can also be caused by the strenuous working conditions on a farm, he mentions.

He says as a farmer, “you always have to work hard on the farm, whether it is raining, hot, cold or windy you have to be out there working. You have to tend to your cattle, check on your crop and sometimes we tend not to take holidays. Unless you are a big commercial farmer, and you are making money while you sleep. Sometimes even taking time off from work may lead to loss of appetite, insomnia and even anxiety attacks,” he explains.

Dr Firdose Moola, a mental health psychologist with the KwaZulu-Natal Advisory Centre. Photo: Supplied.

Tikana’s sentiments are echoed by Dr Firdose Moola, a mental health psychologist with the KwaZulu-Natal Advisory Centre, who says farmer’s lifestyles have a heavy and different load on stress levels compared to other job categories.

Moola indicates that this is compounded by the unpredictability of nature that has a huge impact on their production and innumerable external factors that may contribute to their mental woes.

“They are surrounded and affected by the economic climate, agriculture, droughts, floods, fires and diseases. With the added strain of the high number of farm attacks increasing and including debt, poor irrigation, family stress, equipment maintenance and the uncertain discourse around land expropriation,” she says.

These are all major factors in the farmer’s mental health and wellbeing. In extreme cases the stress and uncertainty drive farmers to commit suicide, she says.

Moola suggest that healthy awareness and education surrounding depression and suicides can minimise the risk of suicides in farming communities.

“Risks and farmer’s support networks should be identified in the areas, farmers need to maintain close relationships with family and friends as support structures. Businesses also need to support local farmers to produce and farmers need to employ more skilled workers,” she advises.

Impact on farm workers

Christo van der Rheede, the executive director at Agri SA. Photo: Supplied
Christo van der Rheede, the executive director at Agri SA. Photo: Supplied

Van der Rheede cautions that mental health problems don’t affect farmers alone.

“There are family members that are affected, farmworkers are also seriously affected when they lose their job,” he says.

Van der Rheede stipulates that Agri SA has a range of interventions that can assist farmers and farmworkers suffering from depression.

“Our farmer’s organisation at a grassroots level can provide various parts of support in drought situations, and that system has really assisted lots of farmers. If you just look at how farmers come together, and communities got together to support farmers in the fire-stricken areas, for example. Tonnes and tonnes of all kinds of aid has been delivered to those farmers, and even financial aid as well,” he says.

He reveals that farmers are also integrated with their local pastors at their churches. “We work very closely with the various churches in the rural areas so that they can assist farmers. Then obviously you’ve got psychologists that can also assist farmers, their wives, and farm workers,” he says.

Uncertainty produces depression for farm workers

Farm manager Inga Butshingi, from the Van Greunen Boerdery in George in the Western Cape says the uncertainty of not knowing what you are going to do if you were to be let go contributes to farm worker’s anxiety.

Farm manager Inga Butshingi, from the Van Greunen Boerdery in George in the Western Cape. Photo: Supplied.

“I think about 80% of the people on the farm have never worked anywhere else but on this farm. They don’t have the experience to work any other job because farming is the only life they know. Even when they go to school, they go because they are bored, and they know that after a certain age they are going to drive a tractor, or they are going to be a milker on the farm,” he says.

“For them they have made it in life if they manage to secure a job on the farm. So, if the farm would be sold what do you expect these farm workers to do. What happens to a father with four children who doesn’t have another life outside the farm? Even the house he lives in, it was given to him by the farm owner and then you say ‘I’m closing shop’. What do you expect all these people to do?” he asks.

Clinical psychologist Dr Masisi Samuel Thekiso, in his thesis titled Psychological well-being, health and the quality of life of farm workers in South Africa argues for better health programmes for rural communities.

He says for successful and sustainable interventions, health professionals, policy makers, human rights activists and rural employee organisations as well as the broader social movement need to jointly contribute to health programmes aimed at addressing the challenges facing rural communities in general, and farm workers in particular.

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