The mental health and well-being of farmers is an important conversation often overlooked, especially here in South Africa where food producers are suffering. From farm attacks, climate change, and Eskom’s power failures, to increasing input costs and very soon, an even higher electricity bill, it’s very tough for them right now.
“Farming is like a rollercoaster ride,” says poultry farmer Miki Mkwetha. “One day [you’re] on top of the world and the next day [you] hit rock bottom.”
Mkwetha farms in Pretoria and says it feels to her as if she has to fight systems in order to feed the nation.
“The unreliable electricity, high fuel, fertiliser prices and packaging materials; as a farmer [it] makes you feel like you’re working for these companies.”
‘Fighting against systems’
“Produce supplies [don’t] increase according to the input cost and that has a huge mental effect [on] us as farmers. It feels like we are fighting against systems to provide people with food. People also don’t realise that it is the middleman and the shops that take all the money,” she says.
Pointing to water shortages, changing weather patterns and Eskom, Mkwetha believes farmers elsewhere in the world do not have to deal with half of the things farmers here in Mzasnsi do. “That is why big farmers one day will just close their office and commit suicide because of the pressures,” Mkwetha says.
Livestock farmer Zwelinzima Mkhuzangwe, founder of MegaRoss Projects in Ventersdorp, knows all too well about industry pressures. Load shedding and the impact thereof on his farming business has taken a toll on him. “Electricity has a negative impact on our mental health [as farmers] because we have to spend more [money] during the load shedding crisis.”
Making matters worse is the fact that Mkhuzangwe operates on a small scale, which means he cannot afford to incur any additional expenses. Keeping up with the daily operational costs of running his farm is already challenging.
On top of this, Mkhuzangwe worries about his livestock being stolen. “I don’t think anyone will feel good if something was stolen from them. That will hurt me. These things bring stress and depression because one might lose everything from theft which may be very bad for your mental health,” he explains.
Mental health pressures
The South African Federation for Mental Health’s project leader for advocacy and awareness, Michel’le Donnelly, says considering the relentless and seemingly never-ending challenges farmers in the country grapple with, it is safe to conclude that farmers may be experiencing some mental health pressures.
According to Donnelly, research has identified several occupational health risks through studies of farming communities.
“Some have specified farming as an especially stressful job. Farming is associated with a range of physical and mental health risks because of the hard work under challenging conditions,” she points out.
Donnelly says the prolonged stress can greatly impact human mental well-being. When your mental well-being deteriorates to a certain point, it can become a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety.
“It is very important to say that there is nothing shameful about having a mental health disorder, just like there is nothing shameful about having high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer,” she adds.
“It’s also important to know that stress can impact anyone, but some people are less able to cope with stress compared with others and this could be because of your genetic makeup, your personality, early life events that may have happened and what your current circumstances are at the moment.”
‘Be careful of burnout’
So, what can farmers, who juggle tough industry challenges and mental health, do to take care of their mental well-being?
“In South Africa, farmers have access to the same mental health support as the rest of the country. We are not aware of any ‘farmer specific’ mental health support that is available,” Donnelly says.
“For those in the agriculture sector who are finding it difficult to cope, we encourage them to reach out as help is available.”
Donnelly says when it comes to work-induced stress, is critical to also talk about burnout.
She describes burnout as feelings of no energy or exhaustion; increased mental distance from your job or feeling very negative about your job; and reduced professional efficacy.
While people are usually aware of being under a lot of stress, they do not always notice burnout when it happens, Donnelly adds.
Farmers should have access to help
Mkhuzangwe advises farmers to care of their mental health. “If [you] are facing stressful situations, [don’t] let them become extreme, which [can] lead to depression.”
He adds that farmers who are negatively impacted mentally should have an industrial psychologist available to them monthly.
Industrial psychologist Dr Kobus White says that it is not only farmers who are affected mentally, but their families as well. White has been involved with farming communities since 2018.
“Government does not have any sustainable solutions for the mental health assistance for the farming community,” he points out.
Donnelly says mental health in South Africa continues to be under-resourced and underfunded, despite it contributing significantly to the overall burden of disease.
“More can be done in terms of assisting farmers with their mental health and stress. We believe more can and should be done when it comes to mental health in the country. It costs South Africa more to not treat mental illness. If we don’t take care of reducing stress and its impacts, a person’s mental health can deteriorate into a mental illness,” explains Donnelly.
When you can’t cope, you can reach out to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) on 0800 567 567 for help.
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