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Farming matters: Owen Paterson - 'Time for a renewed focus on mental health in farming'

This is the first column I have written for Farmers Guardian since my wife Rose’s suicide in June. I have been very touched by the response of so many farming people.

I have been moved by the number of letters and messages that I have received, which is a testament to how well-liked and respected Rose was.

 

Life continues to be extremely difficult, but I am now focusing more on the importance of good mental health and wellbeing.

 

I am becoming more involved in suicide prevention and will be launching the Rose Paterson Trust in April, dedicated to suicide prevention and suicide bereavement, promoting projects improving physical and mental health.

 

If I can help prevent even one family from going through the extreme anguish that mine is suffering, then I will have done something really worthwhile.

 

A major focus area will be farming where rates of depression and suicide are among the highest in any occupational group.

 

While suicide rates among the occupation of ‘farmer’ have fallen to the national average, suicide is 1.7 times more prevalent among men working in other agricultural or related roles.

 

The risk is nearly twice the national average for those harvesting crops or rearing animals.

 

Worryingly, levels of depression in farming communities appear to be rising.


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Isolation, long hours and being unable to escape the workplace can all have a negative effect on mental health.

 

Financial problems and debt can cause anxiety, while natural disasters, theft, safety factors and relationship problems add to the list of mental health risk factors.

 

Other occupations might be exposed to one or two of these, but farming sees them all frequently.

 

This is why we must make welfare a more central part of farming life.

 

Research by the Farm Safety Foundation has found that 80 per cent of farmers under 40 believe that poor mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today.

 

In response, the Farm Safety Foundation launched its ‘Mind Your Head’ campaign three years ago, seeking to raise awareness of this issue across the industry.

 

The annual Mind Your Head week takes place this week, February 15-19.

 

The campaign has made a very valuable contribution by ensuring that mental health is not ignored and by enabling more frank, honest discussions.

 

Unfortunately, in farming communities these discussions have in the past been held back by the stigma attached to mental health.

 

Traditional attitudes have sometimes, mistakenly, led people to believe they must handle this alone, they must ‘pull themselves together’ and ‘just get on with it’.

 

So people suffering anxiety or depression will often fail to share their thoughts. Mind Your Head focuses on this, encouraging people to talk more and also to spot often hidden warning signs.

 

The campaign’s toolkit – found at yellowwellies – helps people to guide colleagues, family and friends to the support they need.

 

So if you know someone who appears to be anxious, please ask them – ‘Are you OK?’.

 

This simple question can save lives.

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