Melinda Raker is founder of You Are Not Alone, which has achieved national acclaim for its work in encouraging farmers to talk about mental health issues and offering support to those in need. Clemmie Gleeson reports.
Mixing a background in healthcare and administration, formal roles with charities and fundraising along with an insider’s knowledge of farming, not to mention her ability to make things happen, Melinda Raker is the ideal person to be tasked with researching what can be done to help farmers affected by poor mental health.
Melinda grew up in Norwich, later moving to London to train in hospital administration.
She worked in various hospitals and an addiction clinic in the capital before returning to Norfolk to work at the St Andrew’s and Hellesdon group of mental health hospitals.
After marrying her husband John in 1972, she became very involved in his family business at Croxton, near Thetford, Norfolk.
She says: “At the time, we had cattle and pigs, as well as arable, but I always had an interest in charities and fundraising.” Once the couple’s three children – Jo, Henry and Edward – reached their teenage years, she decided the time was right to pursue this further.
“When I was 38, I had a brush with cancer which was pivotal,” she says.
“Like many people affected, I wanted to do something to raise money.
“At the same time I was diagnosed, two of my good friends were too and sadly they didn’t reach the age of 40.
“I am sure that gave me some of the drive I still have now.
I was the lucky one.” Melinda held fundraising events for national charities, including Breakthrough Breast Cancer and Red Cross, and after several years holding cookery demonstrations in a converted farm building, she had a new plan.
She decided to mark her 15-year survival of cancer by organising an art exhibition at Croxton, and ‘Art at the Park’ was hugely successful for seven years, raising more than £50,000.
Melinda says: “I’m a big believer in finishing a party when everybody is dancing.
I also believe that closing the door on something inevitably means another door opens.” Indeed, within a year, Melinda had taken on several new roles, including trustee of the Norfolk Heart Trust, patron of Marie Curie and a deputy lieutenant role within Norfolk.
In 2006, she had been asked by the trustees of The Clan Trust to research what could be done to support farmers with mental health issues.
It came after an eminent Norfolk farmer took his own life just before Christmas in 2005.
Melinda says: “Looking back, I can see the trustees were ahead of their time.
The farming community at that time wasn’t talking about mental health.
“The trustees gave me carte blanche to go out and find out what would work.
Using my medical, charity and farming contacts, I started looking into what could be done and what we could set up.
“The key thing was it had to be simple and sustainable.
“We knew there was a desperate need for support because of the number of suicides.
“Everybody has mental health, good or bad, and I knew the farming community wasn’t good at communicating mental health issues.
“It was essential to establish confidence in You Are Not Alone [YANA] and, because John is well-known in farming, I didn’t use my own name for many years, working completely under the radar.” YANA launched in Norfolk in November 2008, with a fundraising effort the following June enabling it to move forward.
Melinda says: “The Wheatsheaf Ball raised £60,000 for YANA.
I was standing in the marquee that evening, listening to the auction, and I knew it would be life-changing for YANA.
“We could now fully fund the counselling and employ a part-time administrator.
It had taken me almost three years to get to this point and it was hugely exciting.” In 2012, the organisation expanded into neighbouring Suffolk, then by chance welcomed the opportunity to set up in Worcester as well.
She says: “In summer 2018, absolutely the right person, Louise Sapwell from Kidderminster NFU, contacted us from Worcester.
“She completely understood the YANA message and was already supporting the farming communities informally, so we welcomed her with open arms to take on the YANA template.”
Starting initially with two counsellors, there are now a total of 17 in the three counties who take referrals from YANA via its helpline.
It can fund six sessions of counselling for those in farming or rural businesses and, in the last eight months of 2019, YANA funded 280 hours of counselling, compared to 100 in the whole of 2018.
Melinda says: “A lot of that is due to the service being better known, but all rural support groups have seen an increase in the demand for support.
“The uncertainty of last year may have contributed, as well as the usual stress points of farming.
“We can arrange the counselling in 48 hours, compared to NHS waiting lists for counselling, which can be up to nine months.”
The helpline is manned by Samaritan-trained volunteers on a rota, enabling maximum coverage, but as a small organisation it cannot be a 24-hour service, she says.
Melinda says: “Farming communities have been fantastically supportive with raising money and the profile of YANA.”
The Clan Trust has been hugely supportive, but it’s probably time for YANA to have its own wings
It is this success with the industry ‘looking after its own’ which led to Public Health England calling YANA an ‘exemplar project’.
Melinda says: “We were frequently asked if there were similar charities in other parts of the country, so in 2018 we put together a national directory of all the rural support groups.”
This valuable resource has been circulated to charities, NFU and CLA branches, land agents, rural businesses, police forces and agricultural colleges across the UK.
Conversations with staff from the CLA then led to a further project.
She says: “They were taking extremely difficult calls from very stressed clients and weren’t sure how to handle them.
“That gave us the idea of running mental health first aid courses to give delegates the skills to support colleagues, clients, friends and family.” The first course was such a success that YANA then applied for a grant from The Prince’s Countryside Fund to offer further courses.
The idea was the charity should have a ‘YANA Army’ of mental health first aiders across our industry.
But the two-day course is intense.
She says: “Trainers go through the whole tranche of mental health problems and symptoms to recognise, and how to signpost people.” By January 2020, a total of 100 people had been trained in just 15 months.
Melinda says: “We thought it would take two years to achieve that number, but we’ve had more interest than we thought.
The generous funding made it possible.
“Tragically, one person takes their life every week in farming in the UK, so last year we launched a suicide prevention campaign, ‘Seven tractor facts to save a life’ aimed at giving people the confidence to intervene if they’re worried about someone, together with information of action to take and how to access support.
“Asking someone if they feel suicidal won’t put the idea into their head, but gives them a chance to speak about how they’re feeling, and that sense of relief could save their life.”
Melinda is confident the next generation is better at talking about mental health.
She says: “I often speak to Young Farmers Clubs and they are brilliant; much more open about talking about it and very supportive to their friends.
In the last few months, I’ve given talks to various organisations, land agents’ seminars, British Sugar, Rotary Clubs, NFU training days and agricultural conferences, so there’s definitely much more interest in the subject.” In the new decade, Melinda’s hopes for YANA to become a charity in its own right.
She says: “The Clan Trust has been hugely supportive, but it’s probably time for YANA to have its own wings and fly.
“I originally said that if we helped one person it would all be worthwhile and we know that we’ve done so much more than that.
I’m hugely proud of what we have achieved.”
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