Speaking up when things get tough saved two farmers from the point of no return. Former dairy farmer Bobby Stevenson and farm worker Duncan Maclellan speak to Farmers Guardian about their recovery.
Before mental health problems hit, former dairy farmer Bobby Stevenson was someone who could ‘deal with anything.’ “Whatever life threw at me I could cope with,” he says.
But that began to change after Bobby purchased some additional land to expand the farm in Ballantrae in 2012.
Land was not often available and he felt it was an opportunity not to be missed. Initially all was well; milk prices increased and his repayments were easily covered.
That was until the price began to fall. He says: “By no means was the business on its knees, but I was in a situation I was unfamiliar with.
It was my first experience of borrowing a large sum of money.” Then, at 49, Bobby suffered a stroke which affected the right-hand side of his body.
After a few days in hospital, he was straight back to work on the farm, but as well as new physical challenges, his mental health was suffering too.
He says: “Being a farmer means you are making decisions all the time, but unlike other jobs you never get a break from it.
I felt as if I was in a hole and the sides kept falling in and it was my job to just keep shovelling it out.
I got to the stage where I couldn’t face going outside. All I saw were the problems.”
Over the next couple of years Bobby was hospitalised three times and it was during his third stay something shifted for him.
“Mainstream mental health services have limited experience of agriculture,” he says.
However, while at Woodview Hospital, Irvine, he worked with a professional who was a farmer’s daughter and her understanding of his situation was transformational.
He says: “She gave me the building blocks to put myself back together again.” Part of his recovery included his decision to sell the farm after realising he needed a permanent change.
Bobby is passionate about sharing his story and assuring others who might be suffering with their own worries and anxieties.
“Depression is an illness, but it is curable if you speak to somebody and, just like with an animal which is unwell, it is better to start treating it early.
We have to break down the stigma with mental health.” He encourages farmers to look out for neighbours.
“Particularly since Covid-19, we have lost that neighbour connection.
Take the time to stop your tractor and talk.” A year on from leaving the farm, Bobby and wife Val live a stone’s throw from the sea at Lendalfoot.
Bobby is well and particularly appreciates being able to go away without the worry of leaving the farm.
He still has some farm machinery and enjoys working for a local contractor without the pressure of running his own farm.
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Sharing his experience of depression was a key part of recovery for Aberdeenshire farm worker Duncan Maclellan.
He had difficulties throughout his late teens following his parents’ separation, but these became much worse following the sudden and unexpected death of his father in 2017.
Duncan, 26, was working on a dairy farm in New Zealand at the time and initially started having problems sleeping.
He says: “I was lucky if I got a couple of hours per night.
I was okay during the day, but as soon I tried to get to sleep everything went rolling through my mind.” This led to feelings of depression and, after eight months, he returned home to Scotland, unsure what his next step would be.
One of my relatives was looking for somebody to help with harvest, so I took that job and I am still there.” But his depression got worse.
“Everything kept going through my mind, I wasn’t sleeping and I couldn’t cope with even little things. I thought everything was my fault.”
In August 2019 he received the news that a friend in New Zealand had taken his own life.
“In the 18 months up to that I lost five friends to suicide, three of whom were involved in farming.
Something twigged for me and I knew I didn’t want to get to the point where that seemed the only option.
I spoke to close family members, my mum and my sisters.
I told them I was really struggling.” Duncan then got in touch with a counsellor recommended by his sister’s friend and made an appointment.
“I also decided to put a status on social media to let people know I had been struggling and encouraging anyone else to speak up if they were also having difficulties. The worst thing is to keep it bottled up.
I got hundreds of messages and phone calls from friends, people I was at school with and even people I barely knew.” Duncan had a few counselling sessions which he found helpful, but says sharing his feelings with others was the most powerful source of support.
He says: “If you are having a bad day and someone asks how you are doing, being open and honest is the best way. “I still have down days.
I am not 100 per cent there, but my sleep is recovering and I feel better.” Running has been great therapy for him too.
“It is my number one escape – getting out with my music on and just running and blocking out everything else.
That has been a massive help.” He prioritises his self care more now.
“I go around things in a slightly different way looking after myself, taking time away from the farm and just trying to get more of a balance in my life I guess.”