A young farm worker, who later survived a suicide attempt, says his worst day was being ordered to kill 30 bobby calves with a steel pipe.

Young farmworkers continue to be disproportionately represented in farm suicide figures despite higher awareness of mental health issues. A Stuff investigation by NADINE PORTER considers whether the isolation of farm life can exacerbate problems in vulnerable young men.
By the time Mark (not his real name) attempted to end his life, his farm job had all but consumed him.
Grafting 15 hours most days on an isolated West Coast property as a dairy farm manager and then as a contract milker, he had little time to deal with the thoughts in his head.
Employing staff, handling costs and organising day to day management of the farm was part of the plan to get ahead financially, but it also led to him becoming self-absorbed and distant from his wife and children.
Wanting to feel good about himself, Mark pushed harder and harder, hoping his successes would be noticed and that somehow he would receive the affirmation he had always craved.
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But when Marks wife left him after their relationship broke down, his already crumbling world fell apart.
Devastated at the loss of the nurturer who had made his house a home, he didnt go to work for two weeks, communicating to farmworkers via radio-telephones.
Mark also stopped eating and when he did emerge to test some cows he looked seriously ill.
Aware of the situation, the farm owner said nothing even though his decline was obvious leaving Mark feeling isolated, let-down and alone.
He called his father who was a GP and told him he wasnt feeling right to which his father suggested he could send some money, not understanding the anguish his son was trying to convey.
And as his world closed in, a phone call from his ex-wife in which they discussed the division of their assets became the final trigger that ignited years of complex emotions he had tried to suppress with the help of alcohol and drugs.
On a drizzly West Coast day in October 2011 Mark posted a message on Facebook to let the people he loved know that he appreciated them.
By the time his estranged wife arrived, concerned at the Facebook post, Mark had already made the decision to end his life.
In some ways the events of that day were blueprinted by all that had come before when Mark first entered the farming industry in 1998 as a 17-year-old.
Formerly from Nelson, he left home to work as a shepherd on two isolated farms in the North Island. With homesickness washing over him, the young man spent long days working on his own away from the social network of friends he had grown up with.
With no phone and little money his life consisted only of work. Weekends were for beer and cigarettes not to mention trying to forget how lonely he felt.
After a year he moved to Canterbury to begin his career in the dairy industry at a time when working conditions were often criticised publicly.
With low self-esteem he found the work environment daunting with little to no support offered by employers. Working six days on and one off while living with a stranger in employee accommodation felt overwhelming.
By the time he had moved to his third job in Canterbury he was on an 11-day on, three day off roster. This time he was to encounter an aggressive boss who verbally abused him on a daily basis, often calling him a f…… useless c….
Hearing it like that is hard to take from someone you respect… I spent a lot of time feeling like I was all those things he was saying I was.
By the time days off rolled around, Mark was too worn down to socialise. Instead, he would stay home, drink, take cannabis and go back to work even more fatigued.
You just try to function. Its such a health and safety disaster waiting to happen.
Not feeling right, but unable to understand what was happening to him under a spiralling workload and plummeting self-confidence, the then 21-year-old went to a doctor who prescribed him antidepressants.
He hid his problems from his boss, knowing even a hint of mental illness could lead to him losing his job, and attempted to cope by drinking and self-harming something that he had done irregularly when he was at school.
I became vacant … disassociated with everyday life … really struggling.
Suicidal thoughts crept in and the sense of worthlessness was heightened by the lack of care from those around him. Even now the memory of his boss dismissing the scarring on his arms with a snide comment about them being the result of a cat attack hurts.
You just want somebody that you respect to be friendly and to put a hand on your shoulder and say are you alright, mate?
Long days working with the farms dairy herd and lack of sleep contributed to Marks low mood.
Opening up to someone was not an option.
There was such a heavy weight on telling someone because instantly you are judged.
The stigma around exposure of mental health issues on dairy farms was such that Mark believed the farmer bush telegraph system would effectively cut off any future job opportunities.
Equally he felt stuck in the industry.
No-one wanted a washed up farmer then.
Sleep-deprived, in conjunction with increasing alcohol and cannabis usage, he ignored any of the negative thoughts he was carrying.
Id go back to work on a Monday tired … probably hungover … might have had an argument with the missus and had to get up at 4.30am and deal with the day … I was just constantly not dealing with anything.
And there were other practices on farms that weighed heavily on him.
Always an animal lover, Mark was affected by any cruelty he witnessed. Over his career he had seen tails broken, cows stomped on repeatedly when they were unable to get up because of a health issue and the terrible ways in which the industry used to get rid of its bobby calf problem.
The worst day of his career working with cows came when a farm boss ordered him to kill 30 friendly bobby calves that were surplus to requirements, with a steel pipe. Using blunt force trauma he bashed the calves with the pole before falling to the ground to vomit because of what he had been forced to do.
Never one to feel that he fitted into traditional farmer groups such as Young Farmers, Mark relied on girlfriends to provide the attention and care he needed.
As his only social connection, the importance of those relationships was amplified, as was the feeling of finality at their endings.
I always felt that a woman creates a home whereas a man lives in a house. Its just a place he resides
Today Mark has left a dairy industry that is now vastly different, and has a better work/life balance, including a strong family and friend network.
Marks deeper issues have not left him, but he tries to be open and is willing to be that person that reaches out to anybody he senses might be having a hard time remembering how much he wanted somebody to do the same for him.
Some days are good, other days less so. But hes realistic that life isnt one long road bathed in happiness.
You just need to have someone to talk to.
Sadly Marks story is not unique, with a Stuff investigation of 47 suicides of farmhands under 25 revealing many similarities.
While much coverage has been given to farm owners and mental health initiatives designed to combat the stresses of their businesses, under 25-year-old farmhands represent a quarter of all rural suicide statistics in the past eight years.
Last year that figure climbed to 38 per cent when seven under 25-year-olds died by suicide leading to questions about what happens to these young men when they enter the farming workforce, and how can we better support them?
Ten years of coroners reports released to Stuff clearly show young men predisposed to low self-esteem and introversion suffer in the farm environment.
While these vulnerabilities might not be apparent or understood by the men or their families when they begin their working life, reports show the conditions can exacerbate them.
They paint a stark picture of young men separated from their social peers, working long hours and often in relationships that have become the focus of their world.
Although its important not to ascribe a one problem, one solution summary to an issue that is both complex and wide, Stuff can say almost all the men had underlying issues that made them fragile in a socially distanced environment including loneliness, fatigue, depression, concerns over finances or trouble they thought they might be in.
As with Marks suicide attempt, in almost 60 per cent of cases, the final trigger that led to the young men taking their life was a relationship break-up or argument.
A recent research paper by Canterbury Universitys Annette Beautrais that looked at farm suicides in New Zealand from 2007 to 2015 found young male farm labourers dominated the overall statistics, rather than farm owners or managers.
Beautrais found relationship losses and acute alcohol intoxication formed common constellations of risk factors.
She said young male labourers often had no contact with health services prior to their death, suggesting that rural suicide prevention efforts need to be positioned within the community, farming and sports organisations, as well as health and social service providers.
Mental Health Foundation CEO Shaun Robinson says New Zealand is not good at teaching youth how to deal with thoughts and emotions.
Mental Health Foundation CEO Shaun Robinson said while any suicide was a tragedy, it was important to remember many young men manage to work through their crises and go on to live good lives.
He acknowledged, however, that New Zealands education, cultural and family systems were not good at teaching our youth how to deal with thoughts and emotions.
Certainly young men are not culturally supported and not given the skills to solve difficult emotions.
Robinson said danger points might occur if farmhands were physically isolated, not well-connected and experiencing emotional stress.
With his own personal history of mental health struggles, Robinson said having a circle of deep relationships and being connected to the community acted as strong protective mental wellbeing factors for young workers.
That is core across all settings in New Zealand that sense of community, of belonging and connections.
Communities needed to be reminded that they had a responsibility to everyone living among them, he said, and urged farm owners to be conscious of their employees emotional wellbeing.
I dont think there is a simple answer other than we have to keep working on rural communities. People need to think about who is excluded, who is on the fringes and how do we get them involved.
The foundation runs Farmstrong a rural wellbeing programme that has been designed to help create and support communities and is progressively working to engage young farmworkers and help them build tools to encourage healthy thinking.
The programme works on the theory that wellbeing happens when a person has strong community connections, psychological and emotional skills to deal with adversity in conjunction with simple positive lifestyle behaviours, he said.
Rural counsellor Kathryn Wright believes parents need to make sure they validate their childrens concerns.
Rural counsellor Kathryn Wright researched New Zealands rural mental health issues in the last year of her psychology degree and found overwhelmingly young male farm labourers were dying because of reasons related to personal conflict, relationship breakdown and isolation, all magnified by drug and alcohol use.
The Te Anau-based counsellor works with young people and bereaved families who have lost a child by suicide. She believes one of the biggest issues around youth mental wellbeing is parents invalidating their childrens concerns, such as reminding them of all the good things in their lives rather than saying thats really tough. Im so sorry.
She also has concerns about programmes centred on people sharing stories about suicide because those struggling might not identify with the circumstances of another persons story and then believe their problems are unsolvable.
Instead, it would be helpful to focus on the commonality of the suffering of those left behind.
Ive heard about mothers who cry out from nightmares in their sleep. I tell young clients this is exactly what you will do to your family, and they sit up and pay attention… That is truly relatable no matter what is going on for them.
While not against social media, Wright said it had added another layer of complexity to mental wellbeing.
Before we had phones we would have to sit with our pain, rationalise it and work through it in our head. Now when we feel the stress what do we do? We pick up the phone.
Young male farmhands problems could also be magnified by the fact that the prefrontal cortex responsible for rational decision-making was not fully developed until their mid-twenties, leading to impulsive actions based on emotion.
Thats why young guys take risks like drinking and driving. Theres no thought of consequences.
DairyNZ people team leader Jane Muir thinks everyone in rural communities needs to observe and act if they notice people behaving differently.
For Jane Muir, responsibility is an important mantra.
Its on all of us to notice if people are behaving differently and take responsibility for finding out whats wrong.
The DairyNZ people team leader believes employers need to tell young employees that its normal to have a range of emotions and to encourage them to talk anytime.
The industry body represents all dairy farmers and their employees and has front-footed mental health issues in the sector by providing a range of support services, including offering mentors and a free hotline specifically for dairy farm employees.
Muir wants employers to encourage young staff to use their annual leave and public holidays in ways that will improve their mental health.
And if its a long distance for them to travel home, make sure they are supported by giving them a good block of time.
Structuring rosters in such a way that allowed time for social and community connections was also important, she said.
It is about taking time to notice. We all have a responsibility to look and observe and not always take things at face value.
Career firefighter Brendon Dunn wants to tell men it’s OK to open up to friends and loved ones, to help reduce the stigma around mental health in male-dominated professions.
Lifeline (open 24/7) – 0800 543 354
Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757
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 talk@youthline.co.nz
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).