Farmers and the rural workforce are renowned for pushing the issue of mental wellbeing aside – but a surge in the numbers highlighting the issue is helping to flag its need to be acknowledged. Lauren Dean reports.
One in four people working in agriculture have been diagnosed with a mental illness – and stress, depression and anxiety are often major factors.
The figures parallel what some may call a need to fall in line with the farmer stereotype of being strong-minded, stoic and somewhat macho – not wanting to be a burden to friends or family, so plodding on as if nothing has changed. But research suggests 81 per cent of farmers under the age of 40 believe mental health problems are the biggest hidden issue for farmers today.
For Young Farmer and Harper Adams agricultural engineering student Jonathan Glen, it was casual chats with his fellow university friends that made him realise that his feelings were not normal and he was not OK.
Jonathan says: “I was not originally born and raised in the countryside, but my family and I moved back from central London to the family dairy farm in a very remote part of Ireland.
“It was there I got the farming bug. “I carried on there for a few years then came back to London, but I decided it wasn’t for me.
“So, I finished my A-levels, made a few phone calls and, by the September, I was flying out to New Zealand to carry on dairy farming.
“I moved into a community where I didn’t know anybody. I lived on my own in a house on the farm and the stress of the job overall was a significant factor in spurring a bout of depression.”
After previously suffering with his mental health, Jonathan says actually he could be in any job and still suffer from depression, but factors that exist in farming, such as the isolation and long hours, significantly raise the chances of an episode being triggered.
A moment of uncertainty meant Jonathan also applied to Harper Adams University, which he admits was his saving grace when it came to dealing with his own mental health.
“Once I had established myself in a small community over there and got familiar with the job, yes a lot of the risk factors disappeared,” he says.
“But it wasn’t until I came to Harper Adams that I really got a grip on it. I was going through a rough patch and I started having conversations with people, thinking this was a bizarre concept how I was feeling.”
Others told him they felt the same, so he asked them how best to deal with it. Often it was his friends who first spotted the signs that something was not quite right.
Jonathan says: “I got to this social point of reference where I realised this is not normal and I shouldn’t feel like that.”
He is speaking out on behalf of Yellow Wellies’ mental health campaign Mind Your Head, running this week (February 11 to 15) to highlight the importance of getting to grips with mental wellbeing in the farming community.
Research by the Farm Safety Foundation found 92 per cent of farmers think promotion of mental health is crucial to moving forward on the issue – and Jonathan agrees.
“It is so important to bounce those feelings off other people,” he says.
“It is very hard to know if how you are feeling is normal without talking to other people.
“It is very much the case that if you spend a long time on your own, it is very easy to become focused only on your own thoughts and feelings and you lose track of what is normal.”
The thing about a mental health problem is it often generates an irrational mindset, Jonathan says and, once you are in an irrational mindset, it is very hard to then deal with that. Mental health to him, in his own words, comes down to some bizarre chemical make-up in the brain.
“Isolation is why the risk factor in farming is so much higher,” he says. “You don’t have that social connection with other people, so it is very easy to end up in a depressive spiral, or suffering, unknowingly, from a mental health condition.
“It is something I think should be brought into agricultural education.
“You don’t have to be an expert in it, you just have to know what you’re looking out for, either in yourself or somebody else and, when it happens, to know where to look for help.
“It is so important to have that awareness because more than likely you are going to spot it in somebody else before they know about it.”
Stephanie Berkeley, of the Farm Safety Foundation, is working hard with Mind Your Head to combat the image problem that surrounds mental health, suggesting it seems to be largely one of communication.
“One in three young adults experienced mental health problems last year,” she says. “Yet still, it seems like we have no idea how to talk about it respectfully or responsibly.” She feels stigma and discrimination are the two biggest obstacles in publicly discussing mental health in all walks of life.
“People still think it’s shameful if they have a mental illness. “They think it shows personal weakness; they think that it shows a failing,” she says. While that may be true for many, 26-year-old farmer’s wife Jennifer Down, East Devon, has turned her personal experiences upside down and is using social media as a way to reach out to others who are in need of help.
She’s what some would quite rightly call a stalwart in the mental health community, tweeting out to more than 6,500 followers every day. Speaking up about her own journey with depression, anxiety and bulimia nervosa has opened the doors to a safe online space where people can confide in her for advice, a chat or simply to instigate positive thoughts.
“I thought I could do something good out of this,” says Jennifer, who admits there were days she would struggle to get out of bed to look after her children, because she didn’t believe she could.
“I get about 10 direct messages a day from people who are lonely or at a loose end, or they don’t know who to turn to.
“I talk to them for a while, ask what is wrong and work out what direction to go in, be it to signpost the GP or charities like the Samaritans or YoungMinds. It is just about being there for them.”
Jennifer says she is still learning – and there are days she will take a break from social media to reflect on her own advice. And while there are people out there like her who are not professionals, their own experiences can help.
“We all need to help fight the stigma of mental health, especially in agriculture where it’s much tougher,” she says.
“The more people stand up and speak out, the better.”.