‘Farmers are often lonely, stressed and overworked - but their wellbeing is vital’

The incidence of mental illness is higher among the farming community than the general population. JOANNE SAVAGE talks to Rural Support about the immense pressures farmers are under from the vagaries of the weather, to unreliable crops, TB infected livestock and the isolation of working the land in remote areas

‘Farmers are often lonely, stressed and overworked - but their wellbeing is vital’
‘Farmers are often lonely, stressed and overworked - but their wellbeing is vital’

The precariousness of the weather, the isolation and loneliness of labouring in fields day and daily with cattle on your own, the chances of livestock being infected with TB, the risks of accidents when working with heavy machinery, the long hours in wellies from dawn to dusk, getting up stupidly early even on the darkest winter morning, and the heavy requirements of self-reliance, often without an adequate support network - all these combined make the farmer’s life an arduous and often isolated one.

It is a hard physical career, farmers out there battling the elements with crops that sometimes fail to yield, the ups and downs of profitability in a tightening economy made yet more uncertain by the difficulties of Brexit, and the psychological and emotional toll of rural isolation all too real as we tentatively emerge from lockdown, so that the mental health and wellbeing of farmers is increasingly under threat.

It is for this reason that organisations such as the Farm Families Programme with the Northern Trust and Rural Support have turned their focus on just this issue, with a new campaign entitled ‘Protect The Asset That is You’.

Christina Faulkner from the Northern Trust’s Farm Families Programme said: “One in four people in Northern Ireland will experience problems that affect their mental health, with this statistic known to be higher in the farming community.

“Farming can sometimes be a lonely, frustrating, and stressful occupation - it can be anything from the farm business being closed with TB and being unable to sell stock, finances mounting up, bad weather, long hours, family disputes or relationship problems. All these factors can add up and affect how we feel in a negative way, and sometimes we all need a bit of help to get us over these hurdles.”

Veronica Morris is chief executive of Rural Support which offers a range of assistive services to farmers and their families including mentoring and counselling.

“Farming can be lonely and isolating - no question, and it depends on what kind of family and support structures are around a farmer; perhaps they are embedded in a tight-knit community, or are close to their local church, but a lot of the time farmers spend the bulk of their days working the land or tending to cattle or sheep on their own. Much of their day is solitary. They aren’t so much part of a team and that isolation can seriously undermine emotional health and increase the risk of depression.

“There is also a lot of volatility in farming, prices go up and prices go down, the weather fluctuates, illnesses like TB can destroy a herd of cattle which can lead to huge culls, and then you have the unreliability of crops. Brexit has also occasioned greater uncertainty.

“People can call our support line or be referred to us through the Farmer’s Union or other agencies, and we try to provide emotional support as well as mentoring in helping farmers come up with practical and financial solutions to the problems that are confronting them. We also have counsellors who work with families and we want to make it clear that central to farming success are healthy and happy farming families.

“We want to encourage farmers to look after themselves both physically and mentally and to prioritise self-care because a lot of the time this is neglected in their focus on the business, the livestock, the land, and simply putting bread on the table.

“Obviously Covid increased the demand for this kind of emotional support because marts, where farmers would typically meet and socialise with each other, were not operational in the same way; communities were cut off from each other and for a time churches were closed too. So an already isolated community became further isolated and this led to more emotional and psychological problems.

“Especially for older farmers, the marts were where they would socialise, have a cup of tea, see their friends - they are back up and running now with certain restrictions, but for a substantial period this vital sense of a community network was gone and that had a negative impact on mental health and wellbeing among farmers.

“We were seeing much more troubled farmers and what we did was try and train workers visiting farms on how to look out for signs of mental distress.”

Speaking of his own experience, Adam Watson, a dairy farmer from Macosquin, near Coleraine, confided: “Multiple things really started to build up on me a few years ago and eventually I did reach out for help to my family and friends and that really helped me. So, I would definitely say if you are feeling overwhelmed to speak to someone. The Farm Families Health Checks Nurses [from the Northern Trust] are there for you to speak to confidentially and you can get onward referral to various services, including Rural Support.”

Another farmer assisted by Rural Support, who did not wish to be named, said the counselling service available had profoundly changed his outlook.

He said: “I had reached the lowest point in my life suffering from long term anxiety, low self-esteem, trauma and identity loss. This heavily impacted my mental and physical health, my farm diversification business, relationships and everyday life. Rural Support stepped into my family home to provide help with my deteriorating mental health through weekly therapy sessions. I was listened to, guided and supported.”

Another anonymous beneficiary of the service added his testimony. He said: “Over time everything had built up and just got on top of me – there were financial pressures and my father was very ill so alongside the worry about his health, I had more work to do and I had to pay for additional help on the farm, then the last nail was hammered in the coffin with the loss of many livestock from a positive TB test. Watching those cattle being loaded onto the lorry I could not stop the tears rolling down my face. I was really struggling. I was so grateful for Rural Support and the help they provided at that stage to guide me through some of my darkest days.”

Veronica Morris adds: “It’s important to be able to ask for help, but also to be able to take a step back and be aware and attuned to how you have been feeling. Are you sleeping well? Are you eating properly? Are you connecting with people outside of the farm? There are things you can do to improve your mental wellbeing. There are also lots of risks with farming, with crops and the health of livestock, but also if your head is not in the right place, that could cause you to be less efficient in operating farm machinery which in turn could lead to accidents or fatalities. It’s also about managing stress and early identification of problems and early intervention.”

Rural Support work with all kinds of farms across the province: sheep, poultry, dairy, horticultural, arable. Staff hail from rural and farming backgrounds, including Veronica, so they are expertly placed to deal with the manifold calls for help they receive from this typically hardy, tight-lipped and proud community.

“I think farmers are a unique breed and Northern Ireland is a majority rural region and the rural economy here is fundamental. But we are not just talking about the health of farmers, but also their families. Rural success depends on their wellbeing. Farmers prioritise their livestock and the land, but what we are trying to point out is that you can’t do any of that well if you are not looking after your own physical and mental wellbeing and that of your family.

“We want to empower farmers to look after themselves and not to be reluctant to seek assistance for the problems they are facing.”

Contact the Rural Support Line on 0800 138 1678 (Mon-Fri, 9am to 9pm) and talk to a member of the team.