Rural support workers quit over MPI's inaction on farmers' mental health after M bovis

Two rural support workers from a trust under contract to MPI have quit their senior roles, saying the agency's response to farmer welfare during the Mycoplasma bovis response has been totally inadequate.

The workers were hired to help farmers cope as the Ministry for Primary Industries locked down farms and animals were sent to slaughter. The original response plan to the crisis stated that "farmer welfare" would be at the centre of its response.

But some of those hired say poor communication from MPI continues to cause anguish and uncertainty among many farmers.

Canterbury farmer Duncan Barr has been dealing with the Ministry since May 2018 after calves on his property tested positive for M bovis.

"What have they done for farmer welfare? Just woefully inadequate. They still do not get where the stress points are."

Sarah Barr - no relation to Duncan - is one of those who have been trying to convey the issues to MPI.

She was the Rural Support Trust's South Island Coordinator - in one of the top jobs - but says she ended up having to resign from that position and take on a different role with the Trust. 

"I had a huge degree of guilt over resigning...because as I say, they can't resign."

She's been working with hundreds of farmers who have been mentally affected by the crisis.

"I've had so many clients that have gone into counselling," she says.

Barr hopes by speaking out now, MPI will change its approach. She says she wrote reports for MPI on the seriousness of the mental anguish she'd encountered with farmers, but feels she wasn't listened to so had to step aside.

"I did that because I failed to see that my input was having any influence on how farmers were being treated... it was extremely frustrating for me."

But MPI Response Director Geoff Gwynn says the Ministry takes the role of rural support workers seriously.

"We have listened and we have made changes based on that."

When asked why two rural support workers have resigned, he said you'd "have to ask them".

Angela Cushnie is another Rural Support Trust Coordinator who has resigned.

"It feels like, from the get-go, welfare has been a bit of a tick box exercise, a bit of tokenism," she told Newshub.

She says the uncertainty for farmers losing control of their farms, as well as being forced to kill animals, has pushed many to the brink. Concerns about breakdowns and suicide were not uncommon. 

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"We were sort of belittled, in the sense that 'Well it can't be that bad'. So morally and ethically, I can't condone that. I just felt it was completely wrong."

Asked if she quit over MPI's inaction, she said she did.

But Gwynn says MPI has taken action, such as paying contractors to take over farm operations if stressed farmers need time out.

"We have made changes," he said. "Are they fast enough? Are there some areas we are still not as good as we could be? Absolutely."

MPI says it's also offering farmers grants of $5000 to get professional advice on restarting their businesses after being shut down.

But both workers say what's needed is a change in culture at MPI so more emphasis is placed on farmer welfare.

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