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Online help for farmer mental health

4 September 2018

ifarmwell is a new website devoted to the wellbeing of farmers across Australia.

Life can be tough, especially for farmers who face seasonal and isolation challenges beyond their control. Things like the weather, fluctuating commodity prices and unplanned pests and diseases are a constant weight on the mind and wallet.

According to mental health advocacy agency Beyond Blue, three million Australians live with anxiety or depression. It is estimated that farmers commit suicide at twice the rate of other Australians, compounded by the fact that isolation means counselling and medical services can be difficult to access. Often, farmers simply don’t know where to turn. Dr Kate Fennell is on a mission to change that. She and a team of researchers at the University of South Australia have developed, an online tool kit to help farmers cope effectively with life’s challenges and get the most out of every day. “Often a farm is not only a workplace, but also a home,” Kate said.

“Many generations of the same family are commonly involved in farm businesses, which at times, can also be challenging.” The idea for ifarmwell grew from research undertaken by Dr Fennell along with UniSA’s Professor Deborah Turnbull, Associate Professor Jim Dollman and Dr Andrew Vincent.

It showed that when farmers are exposed to significant sources of stress, the most effective coping strategies they can adopt are ‘acceptance’ and ‘humour’. “Farmers play an important role in our society, from producing the food we eat to making significant contributions to our economy. And they display impressive resilience and optimism.

“They are very capable people, but their rate of suicide is high and they often find it hard to ask for help.

“Our goal is to give Australian farmers new ways of accessing support that are both meaningful and acceptable to them.”

Kate understands the challenges of agriculture more than most – she grew up on a farm near Streaky Bay – and everyone on the ifarmwell research team has a rural connection or background.

She said communication was key. “The team started by interviewing 18 farmers from across Australia, predominantly from grain and sheep farms,” she said. “They provided great insights into the things they thought were important to consider when designing a website for farmers’ health and wellbeing, such as the language that should be used, the colours and images that appeal to them, and preferred technical features.”

Tone of voice was extremely important. “They said to make sure the language was casual, in a friendly tone and not too fluffy!”

The result is a five-module package that farmers can work through at their leisure. These cover practical strategies, advice on how to spend less time ‘in your head’, more time doing what really matters, and how to get the most out of a busy life.

It takes less than 30 minutes to complete an online module and each one can be paused and saved for resumption later, if farm or family life disrupts it. Approximately 70 farmers have signed up to take part in the pilot testing of the website so far but the project has had its challenges.

“Poor internet service in some areas is a problem but we hope that it is something that will be rectified in the future,” Kate said. “The website has been developed to be compatible with multiple devices so can be used on laptops, desktops, tablets or mobile phones.

“Tone of voice was also important to get right. It was important to be friendly and conversational, but not patronising, so the language used to explain key concepts are farming related.”

Insightful videos and graphics are also helpful. A video of a farmer’s discussion with his GP reveals that many farmers don’t know where to start or what to say. The website provides a script to take to a GP to guide a conversation about wellbeing.

The ifarmwell project was funded by NAB Foundation, Sansom Institute for Health Research (University of South Australia), Freemasons Foundation Centre for Men’s Health, and the Freemasons Foundation.

“The work is ongoing,” Kate said. “We are currently looking for partners to keep improving on the website and take it forward. “It is free to take part and confidentiality is ensured. As another bonus, during the current test phase, participants receive a $100 voucher to partly reimburse them for the time spent completing the questionnaires.

“We still need more farmers to sign up and trial it for us, so that we can come to meaningful conclusions. Potential website users should remember they do not need to be experiencing poor mental health to test the website – it has been designed to give all farmers new skills in coping with things beyond their control.”