As the issue of tackling mental wellbeing in farming remains a talking point, members of the farming community offer perspectives on the importance of looking after yourself and others. Farmers Guardian reports.
Awareness of mental health has increased in recent years, with the Farm Safety Foundation finding that four out of five farmers under 40 believe it is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today.
Justine Worsey farms with her family at Rough Grounds Farm, near Cubley, Derbyshire, where they milk a 280-cow dairy herd and have a 200-head calf to finish beef unit.
She says that, even for those who do not suffer from any specific mental health challenges, farming can be very stressful and it is therefore important to be able to take a step back and put things into perspective.
Justine says: “We find the things we have the least control over, such as the weather impacting work that needs to be done or the results of a bovine TB test, are the biggest challenges in our daily lives.
“We’re very much a family farm, with my son and daughter working here, plus another worker. Because we’re working with family, I think it’s essential to recognise when each other is stressed and to allow one another some cooling off time when needed.”
For Justine, the general public’s perceptions of farming can feel like a burden at times.
She says: “It often seems like people are against farming, blaming farmers entirely for complicated issues, such as flooding and climate change.
“This briefly changed earlier this year when people were panic buying at the start of lockdown, but it has since reverted to the former ongoing challenge.”
She adds that animal welfare activists also present a particular challenge.
Justine says: “There are limits to how the farming community can respond. There is currently a badger cull going on in our area, and there has been some negative comments from keyboard warrior activists flying about on social media.
“We are advised not to respond and get involved in these online arguments, but I sometimes find it is incredibly difficult not to, as I feel farmers should be able to stick up for themselves.”
“I make a point of checking in to ask whether they’re [farming clients] okay, asking twice if necessary”
Vickie Turner, a tenant farmer at Okeover Estate, near Ashbourne, Derbyshire, also mentions how uncontrollable factors like the weather can bring a lot of stress to the family.
She says: “No matter how well we’ve planned what needs to be done, the weather can intervene, and we end up trying to cram a fortnight’s worth of work into just a few days.
“I think over time we’ve learned that we need to take the time to sit down, discuss the problems and what needs doing, then share the stress between us.”
Vickie, her husband and youngest son farm 113 hectares (279 acres), keeping 350 Texel cross ewes alongside an 85- to 100-cow suckler herd. Her husband also does contract fencing work to help diversify their income.
She says: “We’ve struggled with bTB on and off in the 13 years since we came here.
“We went down again in August, which was very demoralising. There have been times when we’ve had more than 50 animals condemned for slaughter, once with three-quarters of our in-calf heifers in one go, which was
Vickie explains how bTB has been a strain on the family business, which has in turn been a challenge to their mental health.
She says: “The kind of pressure that comes from bTB can be really troubling. We usually sell stores, so if we’re still shut down in March, we’ll be stuck with no income, other than the funds from the contract fencing, and too many animals on-farm until we can start selling lambs later in the year.
“It feels lonely, with people seeming near but so far away at the same time. It’s very easy to feel that by reaching out you might be bothering people, but I also know if someone in a similar situation reached out to me then I’d have so much time for them. I’d try to reassure them that they’ll be able to come out the other side.
“I think there is a tendency for farmers to feel like they can’t show their emotions, and I get that, because it’s easy to convince yourself that the challenges are going to go away, but actually not talking about it can mean the problems snowball and get worse.
“I also think it’s really important for us, as a farming community, to check in and remember to take five minutes to ask whether people are okay, especially if there’s a bit of a noticeable change, like they’re quieter than normal.”
“If someone in a similar situation reached out to me then I’d have so much time for them”
David Anderson, a vet from Westpoint Farm Vets, who is involved in the VetPartners Wellbeing Group, also stresses the importance of asking people whether they are okay.
David says: “During my career, I’ve learned that vets can sometimes be in a fairly unique position to pick up on things, especially in truly rural locations where the vet may be the only person a farmer sees that day.
“If I spot a change in a client’s character, like if they’re less upbeat than normal or suddenly seem unable to make decisions, then I make a point of checking in to ask whether they’re okay, asking twice if necessary.
“Often it is only after the second time of asking the question when someone who is struggling feels comfortable enough to open up with an honest answer.”
In addition to his daily veterinary role, David represents the farm veterinary perspective in the VetPartners Wellbeing Group, a collective comprising vets and support staff across the UK. As part of the group they discuss how mental wellbeing can be improved in their workplaces.
David says: “I think there are lots of synergies between the challenges faced by livestock vets and those by farmers. Working long hours and the potential to feel isolated are similar in both professions.”
For David, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought this issue to the fore.
He says: “I know that some of my colleagues and I found it challenging when we were working almost entirely from our cars, barely going into the practice nor seeing each other during lockdown.”
He continues by stressing the importance of seeking help.
He says: “It can be so hard to take the first step and reach out, perhaps not feeling your troubles are severe enough to justify picking up the phone.
“But there are some fantastic organisations which understand the unique challenges of our industry, and I’d encourage anyone struggling with their mental health, or just looking for someone to talk to, to get in touch with them for support.”
“We find the things we have the least control over are the biggest challenges in our daily lives”
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