A broken relationship, drink and a gun – these three factors are a “fatal combination” and account for a significant proportion of farmer suicides, especially among young men.
A gun was used by 40 per cent of the 185 farmers who took their lives between 2007-15, compared with 8 per cent in the general population.
The first study ever in New Zealand farm suicides shows that financial stress was a “negligible” factor, reported in fewer than 5 per cent of cases, nor were severe weather events an important influence.
The most common feature was existing mental illness, reported in 28 per cent.
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Carried out by Canterbury University researcher Annette Beautrais, the study has scrutinised coroners’ records from 2007-15, and shows that access to firearms greatly increases the risk that someone will take their life.
“Ready access to guns means doing something impetuous can convert into a disaster,” Beautrais said.
She was not suggesting guns should be outlawed, but there needed to be better oversight, such as keeping them in a locked cabinet, or police and officials making sure firearms were not ready to hand when they carried out suicide assessments.
“In the group of young farm suicides, relationship problems, access to a firearm and sometimes intoxication, were a fatal combination,” the report said.
At 91 per cent, males were by far more likely to take their lives, and almost half of all suicides were under 40.
But Beautrais said even though young males dominated the statistics, it was wrong to see one type of person as being at risk. She identified six different suicide risk profiles.
By ethnicity, 77.8 per cent were New Zealand European, 14.6 per cent Maori, 2.7 per cent other European, 1.6 per cent Asian, 1.6 per cent Pacific Islands and 1.6 per cent “unknown”.
The largest percentage (43) were married or in a de facto relationship, 27 per cent were single and 21 per cent recently separated or divorced.
According to Statistics New Zealand, suicide rates are higher in rural areas at 16 per 100,000 people compared with 11.2 for every 100,000 people living in cities.
Beautrais said one of the issues the study wanted to address was the impact of the recent downturn in dairy prices, which began at the end of 2014. So far there had not been a spike in suicides, but it was vital to continue the study through until 2020 at least, to take into account any lagged impact.
Federated Farmers health and safety spokeswoman Katie Milne said it was possible any increase had been averted by efforts to help farmers, through the Rural Health Alliance Aotearoa NZ, and the work of high profile people like Sir John Kirwan.
“A lot of extra funding was put into rural mental health because we didn’t want to see any spike,” Milne said.
SIX TYPES OF FARMER AT RISK:
Single young farm labourer
Lives alone in an isolated area, and his suicide is prompted after being rejected by a potential or actual girlfriend. Has access to a loaded gun, has not seen a GP prior to death.
Young labourer or manager in stormy relationship
He has a partner and children but the relationship is tumultuous and fragile and suicides after his partner leaves or threatens to leave. Vulnerable, poorly educated, with a history of alcohol/drug problems.
In his 50s, usually married, but with a serious health problem which impacts on his quality of life. Well known to his GP, may have threatened suicide, saying not prepared to tolerate loss of mobility and pain.
Retired or part retired farmer
Concerned about declining physically, and fears becoming ill or dependent. Has a firearm and uses it to take his life, surprising family who say they had not taken his suicide threats seriously.
Mentally ill male
Has endured a severe mental illness for some time, may be alcohol/drug dependent, and may have attempted suicide.
Women with mental health problems
Casual, part time workers with a history of mental health problems and childhood and family dysfunction. Nothing specific about their farm work precipitates suicide.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
Healthline (open 24/7) – 0800 611 116
Samaritans (open 24/7) – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. You can also text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
0800 WHATSUP children’s helpline – phone 0800 9428 787 between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at www.whatsup.co.nz.
Kidsline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 754. This service is for children aged 5 to 18. Those who ring between 4pm and 9pm on weekdays will speak to a Kidsline buddy. These are specially trained teenage telephone counsellors.
Your local Rural Support Trust – 0800 787 254 (0800 RURAL HELP)
Alcohol Drug Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 787 797. You can also text 8691 for free.
For further information, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service (09 623 4812).