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Time to address industry stigma of mental health

As calls to farming helplines increase, Olivia Midgley and Alice Singleton ask why the industry struggles to address mental health issues and look at the impact this can have on farmers and their families.

Alice   Singleton

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It is time to address the stigma attached to mental health within the farming community #StopTheStigma

Watch our moving video highlighting the concerns of #MentalHealth within the farming community.

Do not suffer in silence - help is on hand for anyone suffering from the effects of mental illness.

Alice   Singleton

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For an industry as tightly-knit and community-spirited as farming, it is difficult to understand why mental health issues, such as stress, depression and anxiety, are such a taboo subject.


When the sector is plunged into crisis, such as the Somerset floods of winter 2013 or this week’s horrendous flooding in Cumbria and the Scottish Borders, farmers stand together united and do all in their power to help each other.


But when it comes to discussing illness, mental illness in particular, many farmers go into shutdown.


Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows one in five people will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives.


However, those who develop mental illness in rural communities are less likely to seek help than those living in urban areas.


It is this build-up of stress which farm help charities say is a great concern, most notably because it can increase the risk of farmers committing suicide.


Don't suffer in silence



John Macfarlane, welfare manager at Scottish farming charity RSABI, said: “Most calls to our helpline involve depression, with several callers having thoughts around the idea of being better off ‘not being here’.


“There are, generally, financial issues involved for these callers, which can include a sense of failure at managing the family business and, perhaps, thinking they may be the one who will not have anything left to hand to the next generation.


“We have also talked to older people with no successors for their business who are simply unable to stop, despite now being in very poor mental and physical health.


“The remaining calls are prompted by a particular single issue, such as bereavement or an animal welfare problem.”


Charles Smith, chief executive of the Farming Community Network (FCN), said the charity had seen an increase in calls to its helpline this year, with almost one-third of these cases now involving an element of depression or poor mental well-being.


Last year, 28 per cent of calls to FCN were from farmers and farming families who had been affected by an incidence of bovine TB.


Mr Macfarlane said calls to RSABI had ‘definitely worsened’ since the beginning of this year, with the cashflow crisis which has affected almost every sector across the UK thought to be behind the spike.


He said: “At the present time, I cannot recall a busier period of conversations with farmers and farm workers involving mental health issues over the last 10 years or so.


“This, of course, may simply be due to the success of RSABI in raising its profile, but I think it is a reflection of the current situation for many Scottish farmers.”


Of these farmers, one-third of cases involved dairy farmers. He said there was a range of help available to farmers and was confident the situation would improve if more farmers sought help and advice.


British mental health statistics



Mr Macfarlane said: “My gut feeling is attitudes towards mental health issues in farming communities are slowly improving.


“The effects of depression, such as lack of sleep, low motivation and lack of concentration, are not conducive to running a farm business.


“It is therefore important to encourage the farming community to seek help as early as possible in the onset of illness, so support can be provided to allow the sufferer to keep working or get support put in place to assist.”


Trish Pickford, head of welfare at RABI, said stress over red tape was common, adding charities were poised to help farmers.


“We can help with applications for state benefits, providing our own grants for domestic needs and arranging free debt advice and help for people if they are in a muddle with their paperwork.


“We hope our intervention will alleviate some of the pressures, but it is important people seek help from their GP if they are suffering mental distress.”



Why is mental health such a taboo?

John Macfarlane of RSABI said farmers experiencing symptoms may be frightened to seek help because they see it as a ‘sign of weakness’. Other issues include:

  • The implications of poor mental health not being understood by the person experiencing it as well as friends and family
  • Not having services or sources of help available which understand the obligations of running a farm business and the commitment required in looking after livestock
  • Not having anyone to talk to at work – no-one working with them and perhaps a partner who is working off the farm to try to make ends meet; experiences of poor mental health are not shared in communities until, often, the sufferer can no longer function, or worse
  • There is often simply no-one with the time to listen to the sufferer, which is a vital first step in addressing the illness.

Case Study: Family heartbreak

Cornish farmer Chris Hutchings and his family were left devastated when his brother-in-law took his own life.


Mr Hutchings said: “We did not see it coming. He was a young, fit, healthy young man and had everything going for him, yet he felt he had no alternative but to take his own life.


“The heartache and devastation it leaves behind is immeasurable and we have to live with it for the rest of our lives.”


Mr Hutchings believes if his brother-in-law had sought help, he may never have contemplated suicide.


“As an industry, we are individuals and hold things close to us and we are afraid to talk about it. I think there is stigma about mental health. Maybe we are afraid to show weakness.


“The most important thing is to talk about it. There are people out there who can help. You have to remember you are not on your own.”

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