Making it easy to talk about mental health is Naomi Wright’s mission. After setting up a rural-based therapy business, she talks to Emily Ashworth about challenging the stigma of mental health in agriculture.
It is easy to see why Naomi Wright is a therapist. By her own admission, talking is her ‘thing’, and from the moment you meet her she is engaging, welcoming and warm, and considerably down-to-earth.
And that is what she wants – to eliminate that sort of imminent fear the term ‘therapist’ seems to instil in people as soon as they hear it, especially, she says, farmers.
The 29-year-old is not from a farming background, but after moving to Kendal as a young girl she joined Young Farmers.
Naomi now lives on a 101-hectare (250- acre) dairy farm in the area with her husband, David.
She has set up Therapy with Naomi, with a view to helping the rural community with their mental health issues.
After studying psychology at A-Level, she went on to graduate from Newcastle University and then qualified as a psychotherapist from the University of Cumbria.
Before setting up her practice in March 2019, Naomi worked for the NHS as a patient liaison officer, allowing her to witness how the UK’s leading healthcare provider operates.
She says: “I’m so immersed in farming through home life, and I see mental health as a really big factor that this industry is struggling with.
“I feel privileged to be able to merge the two worlds, I have the knowledge a lot of people don’t have about the farming way of life.
“I have worked with clients who wouldn’t have come to counselling if I didn’t have that farming connection.
“It’s important for me to be relatable and my involvement in the farm day-to-day and outside of that at shows for example offers the opportunity for those in the community to see that I understand their situation.” The agricultural community are certainly discussing mental health much more than even ten years ago.
But Naomi believes that it is down to her generation, the instigators of the mental health discussion, to really break down those barriers.
“Younger people in farming are a lot more open,” she says.
“The older generation can sometimes find it more difficult to discuss mental health.
“It’s refreshing and rewarding that it’s a topic that is now talked about more openly.
"Farmers face a different, deep emotional stress because of the unpredictability they can face"
Naomi says: “I cannot connect with you about mental health without addressing our current emotional climate.
“This global pandemic has brought uncertainty, devastation and change.
“Farmers are no strangers to isolation but for many, coping mechanisms include meeting up with friends, agricultural shows and hobbies.
Without these, resilience is tested even more. “We are having to adapt and continue working despite the challenges.
Then there are those in our community deeply affected by changes in demand, and for those people I have no doubt this is a traumatic and incredibly stressful time.
“It is more important than ever that mental health is a topic at every kitchen table.”
“I really enjoy those conversations with farmers because being emotional and vulnerable isn’t a part of everyday life for most farmers.” These issues are also being talked about at a national level – ITV have recently taken to broadcasting short adverts, Get Britain Talking, reminding viewers to put down the phones and talk more.
Naomi says the NHS too are focusing on what more they can do to tackle mental health within rural communities, inviting her to give her insight on the topic to a group of health professionals.
She says: “The NHS specifically wanted an insight in to the farming community to better understand mental health in rural areas.
They know a farmer probably won’t go to their GP unless one of their hands has fallen off.” But there are some pressures almost unique to the farming industry, and we must allow the subject to become part of normal farm life.
Naomi has ideas about how she can integrate talks about mental health right into the heart of farmer’s lives.
She hopes to introduce monthly focused meetings with farmers who have contracts with major suppliers.
“I’d like to have the opportunity to go directly to groups of farmers who are already gathered” she says.
“Farmers are constantly faced with such big issues and as a result mental health is often pushed onto the back burner.
“Tackling mental health would then help to deal with those wider economic issues such as Brexit or TB or cashflow.
“You talk about stress, but farmers face a different, deep emotional stress because of the unpredictability they can face.
“Which other industry has someone else dictate the price to them? My clients wouldn’t tell me what they’re going to pay me.” Self-care is another phrase that is constantly on the peripheral of conversations today, whether on social media or the topic of food, health and wellness books, it seems to permeate much of our daily lives.
But Naomi, who values the importance of knowing your own limits, is worried that the lack of self-awareness when it comes to talking about your own health is harming farmers much more than they think.
She says: “I talk about self-care and I feel like sometimes it’s not even there in farming.
Even the basics are difficult to do, like having time off.
That lack of contact with community or society – how do you combat that?
“Escapism is a huge part of the healing process and in dealing with mental health problems.
For a farmer it could be going to London and seeing lots of people.
But for someone from a city it could be a weekend in the countryside.” There are key processes which need to be put into practice if we are to see changes in the way mental health is viewed and dealt with.
Naomi says: “Try not to judge people.
Think about the way you respond – if someone is saying they’re tired, don’t tell them they need to get more sleep.
“You could empathise and say that sounds difficult or ask, how can I help? Try to make less assumptions about people.” As simple as it may sound, Naomi says the first port of call is to talk to someone.
“I know that can be difficult, but start with saying how you feel.
“It can get worse before it gets better because when you say it, it becomes real, so make sure you go to someone who you feel safe with,” she says.
“Early intervention is key.” Going forwards, Naomi believes society’s attitude towards the subject needs to keep evolving.
“I want the next generation of farmers to feel comfortable talking about mental health.
The topic needs to be seen and discussed in everyday popular culture,” she adds.
“In order to tackle mental illness we need to remove the shame associated