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Coming out of a dark place

Words by Richard Rennie, images by Amy Piper

8 May 2017

Sam Robinson speaks from raw experience when he likens depression to stumbling around forever in a dark room searching for the light switch, banging against furniture and fittings, becoming increasingly frustrated, hurt and trapped by your predicament.

“For me that feeling pretty much sums up what depression is like. Your frustrations compound on top of each other, and you never seem to be able make progress.”

“It gets to the extent you get so worked about something as simple as spilling your cup of coffee on the floor that you go into an uncontrollable rage and punch a wall or just burst into tears.”

Sam is a rarity in New Zealand, and even more so in New Zealand farming circles. He has battled with mental health issues over the past years, and while still working his way through them, he believes he sees a smoother ride ahead than what he has had recently.

Son of a well-established farming family in Methven, he has chosen to speak out about his demons recently in the hope he can help other rural people suffering from depression.

And it is help the sector should welcome. New Zealand has an unenviable record for suicide rates, with 579 people taking their lives in 2015-16, and of that 18 were farmers. Often depression is a background factor in that dark number.

The government has recognised the disproportionately high number of rural suicides by providing more funding for organisations including FarmStrong and the Rural Support Trust.

Sam admits he has been close to what many in his state would have viewed as a final solution to a world of mental pain, and wants to speak out to stop others getting to the same stage.

“But the challenge I think is not so much trying to talk to the people who are suffering depression. They are often in such a state, they won’t hear you, everything becomes such an effort to respond to that sort of thing. You are the guy stumbling around looking for the light switch and not hearing anything.”

He acknowledges the efforts of initiatives like FarmStrong in raising awareness of rural mental health.

“The efforts of FarmStrong and people like Sir John Kirwan are great in breaking the surface on this. But it is still not socially acceptable to talk about it,  it is still putting it back onto the people who are suffering from it,” he says.

Instead he is wanting to encourage more people who may be mentally healthy to think harder, and act faster, towards people who they suspect may not be 100%.

“It may just be a case of knowing a person is not looking or sounding too good, and simply asking him (or her) if they are okay, if there is anything you can do, even if it’s just getting off the farm for a bit and having a talk.”

Sam admits he has always been outspoken and kicked off his campaign with “a bit of a rant” on Facebook during a bad patch.

In it he spoke about how mental health remains the “elephant in the room” for most New Zealanders. He said it is worse in rural New Zealand, where the “number 8 wire” mentality for getting by in often socially isolated environments means blokes won’t put their hands up to admit they are not feeling right. Then when farming’s 24/7 non-stop demands are added in, it is little wonder the sector’s mental health is painted on a black canvas.

 “And what really surprised me was just how overwhelming the response was. I have done a couple now on Facebook and there is a real feeling out there that we need to deal with this and deal with it quickly.”

For Sam the battle has been even tougher knowing his father also battles the “black dog” of depression at times, and it is only in recent months they have re-connected and started communicating well again.

Opening that channel has proven invaluable to helping his pathway to recovery, and also for his father to make some critical, clear headed decisions over the farm’s future.

“Basically it was me coming to Dad and telling him I had decided I did not want to go farming, prompting us to decide to put the farm on the market.”

He admits selling a family property that has been farmed by generations for 100 years is no easy thing, but he and his family have recognised the tough mental toll the dairy conversion business has taken on them.

“Dad is still going to keep 60ha, but it’s a decision we have made after I asked him if it was worth it all in terms of the effect it was having upon us.”

He does not blame the pressures that inevitably come with a dairy conversion and large scale operation, but believes they may have simply accelerated the timeframe for a decision that had to be made at some stage.

“But going from arable to dairying, you do suddenly have those extra pressures of time, debt and people to deal with. It is quite a change in farm type and lifestyle.”

For Sam the pathway to recovery still involves a career somewhere in agriculture, playing to the reward he gets interacting with people, possibly in a rural service area once he has completed his B.Comm at Lincoln in global business and supply chain.

“But now we have made the decision, I do have this sense the options are wide open, it’s scary but it’s also good.”

His pathway to recovery has included a focus on physical activity. That has included working hard to get into shape for playing in the Methven rugby seniors as he also recovers from knee surgery.

“Exercise and the endorphin release you get from it is really important for your mental health, but it is also a tough one to follow through on if you are depressed. Often the last thing a depressed person wants to do is get up and get active, but it’s vital.”

Nutrition has also been important.

“When I was back home farming it was too easy to fill the tank with junk food. I have started to prepare dinners ahead, make lunch and drop the junk food.”

He admits alcohol has played a role in trying to dampen his unease in social situations and doesn’t claim to have dropped it altogether.

“In a small community it is hard not to have a drink, and socialising is good for you, but I have had to learn to limit myself and know when to stop.”

He has remained a member of the Methven Young Farmers Club, and enjoys the social contact with other young people who have had a wide range of life experiences and contacts.

“You really get out of that what you put in, and it’s good to maintain that contact in a social setting, outside of the farm.”

He admits the decision to sell the family farm has not been an easy one, but is one that the family have been able to make with clear heads, and still leave his Dad with a rewarding, workable land area into his retirement.

For Sam the future is wide open.

“Its bloody scary and that’s why myself, along with everyone else battling a mental illness need help to get through, help us find that bloody light switch so we can get out of the dark room.”