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Mental Health Success Stories

Mental health is a global issue. See how rural communities around the world are helping those in need.

In the first two installments of our mental health series, we examined programs in the U.S. and offered tips for helping those struggling with mental health or contemplating suicide. (Reach Out to Those Struggling with Mental Health, August 2018, and Be the Light at the End of the Tunnel, November 2018.)

Since this is a global crisis, however, it’s worthwhile to look at how other parts of the world are tackling the issue. Here are a few creative ways people are working to improve mental health care.  

Take a Seat and Talk to Grandma

When Dixon Chibanda began his career as a psychiatrist and World Health Organization (WHO) consultant in Zimbabwe, there were only five psychiatrists and a few psychologists in the entire country of 10 million people. “We will never reduce the treatment gap unless we take mental health to the community by empowering ordinary people with evidence-based interventions,” he said in a WHO report.

In 2007, Chibanda started the Friendship Bench project (friendshipbenchzimbabwe.org). Fourteen grandmothers were trained as the group’s first lay health workers. 

Chibanda says grandmothers are perfect for this role because of their strong listening skills and ability to convey empathy. Therapy sessions are held outdoors on wooden benches because patients are more comfortable and willing to open up than in a clinical setting. 

The grandmothers are trained by professionals to combine local cultural practices with cognitive behavioral therapy. They meet patients for six therapy sessions focused on solving their individual problems. At the end of the day, the grandmothers sit together and share ideas for each others’ patients. If patients are suicidal, they are referred to a supervisor. 

After their initially prescribed sessions are complete, patients in some areas attend a weekly support group, called Circle Kubatana Tose, which means “together holding hands,” where they sing, talk, and crochet bags and other items from recycled plastic. The work itself helps quiet the mind, and it provides a residual income for clients.

The program has grown from using pencils and notebooks paid for by Chibanda to cloud computing and mobile technology supported by the government and international groups including Grand Challenges Canada.

Today, grandmothers staff Friendship Benches in more than 70 communities throughout Zimbabwe, including rural areas, helping hundreds of patients. 

The Friendship Bench model is now being established in other African countries, and after giving a TED talk in 2016, Chibanda has received requests to implement the program in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Baring it all Down Under

According to the Australian Centre for Remote and Rural Mental Health, rural Australians are twice as likely to die by suicide than those living in urban areas, but they are only able to access mental health care at one fifth the rate of city dwellers.

Ben Brooksby, who experienced his share of anxiety growing up on the family farm during a drought in Western Victoria, has found a way to get his fellow farmers to talk about mental health. A cheeky photo of himself during the lentil harvest wearing only his hat, boots, and a pile of carefully placed lentils was the beginning of Brooksby’s project, The Naked Farmer.

Through his website (thenakedfarmerco.com.au) and social media accounts (he has nearly 90,000 Instagram followers), Brooksby shares photos of scantily clad yet cleverly concealed farmers, along with their mental health stories. “The Naked Farmer gets the conversation started in such a unique way,” Brooksby says. “Our motto is, ‘It takes guts to get your gear off as it takes guts to talk about mental health.’ ”

It wasn’t long before farmers from across Australia and around the world began sharing their own mental health stories and stripped-down photos with The Naked Farmer. Brooksby wanted to do something more with his new following, so he put together a 2018 calendar and two 2019 calendars to raise funds for the mental health unit of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which provides mental health access to remote rural Australians.

“This incredible organization was a no-brainer to support,” Brooksby says. “Australia is such a big country, and this service saves so many lives every year.”

Brooksby was able to meet many of his social media followers on a recent tour around the country. “I was blown away by how truly lovely these farmers and families were,” he says. “We did a lap right around Australia, capturing images and stories from all different types of farmers.” 

One of his favorite examples of how a project like this can make a difference involves a young farmer named Hugo, who was sitting around a campfire with a couple of other farmers in their 50s. “One of them said, ‘I don’t get this Naked Farmer thing. How is it getting people talking about mental health?’” Brooksby says. “Fifteen minutes later, they were still talking about it and sharing their own mental health stories. I spoke up and said, ‘Well, it’s working, isn’t it?’ ” 

Doing More in Canada

According to a study of Canadian agriculture producers conducted by the University of Guelph, 35% have depression, 45% have high stress, and 58% have anxiety, while 40% hesitate to seek professional help because of what people may think. 

The nonprofit Do More Ag Foundation aims to break the stigma around mental health for Canadian farmers through awareness and education, and build a community where they can find mental health resources and connect with each other.

The group’s website (domore.ag) offers resources for Canadian producers and a blog that provides updates and case studies, but Do More Ag has made a major impact with social media. Using the #DoMoreAg hashtag, group founders and the public share their stories, discuss ways to improve mental health, and offer support to each other. With more than 1,500 tweets published since its inception a year ago, Do More Ag is keeping the conversation going. 

Help is a Long Way Off in Many Countries

Often, people who have attempted or are contemplating suicide avoid seeking help because they feel embarrassed or ashamed. There are parts of the world, however, where those who survive an attempted suicide have more to fear than what their neighbors think. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, there are 25 countries in which attempting suicide is illegal, and another 20 that follow Islamic or Sharia law, which may jail those who attempt suicide. 

In Southeast Asia, for example, attempted suicide is a crime in all countries except Sri Lanka and Thailand. That means those providing emergency medical treatment are required to notify police, and patients are subject to police interrogation.

Despite the legal implications and even though Southeast Asia is home to only 9% of the world’s population, this region accounts for 39% of global suicides and nearly half of all suicides among women.

A common method for death by suicide in Southeast Asia is ingestion of pesticides. Since most of the population lives in rural, agrarian areas, pesticides are readily available and generally stored near peoples’ homes or workplaces. This isn’t a problem only in this region, as WHO estimates pesticide ingestion is the cause of one third of all global deaths by suicide.

Thankfully, some of these countries are changing their laws. India, where nearly 60,000 farmers have died by suicide in the past 30 years, decriminalized attempted suicide in April 2017. Before that, survivors faced up to a year in prison.

Call, Text, or Click

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800/273-8255. For more mental health assistance hotlines, online resources, and links to additional articles from Successful Farming magazine, visit Agriculture.com/mentalhealth.

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