Mental health issues can leave farmers ploughing a lonely furrow

PUBLISHED: 15:00 29 March 2019 | UPDATED: 15:14 29 March 2019

A farmer ploughing his field as the sun sets. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

A farmer ploughing his field as the sun sets. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

The particular pressures of their industry leave farmers at increased risk of depression and suicide, writes Lady Philippa Dannatt, a professional counsellor who championed mental health during her year as High Sheriff of Norfolk in 2014-15.

Lady Philippa Dannatt was High Sheriff of Norfolk in 2014-15. Picture: Matthew Usher.Lady Philippa Dannatt was High Sheriff of Norfolk in 2014-15. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Ploughing a lonely furrow is an expression with which we are all familiar. But has that furrow today become too lonely for some to bear?

It is widely reported that farmers are amongst those with the highest suicide rates of all occupations within the UK.

Sadly, on average, some 55 members of the industry take their lives every year, more than one a week. We need to reflect seriously on these statistics and determine how we can best help reverse them.

Many of the factors that contribute towards the level of farming suicides are well documented, loneliness and isolation being foremost. As a child, there were as many as 16 men working on my father’s modest farm. Today, most farms are highly mechanised so it is a very different story.

The demise of rural communities, accompanied by the closure of village post offices, shops and pubs are devastating for farming communities. This adds massively to their social isolation and lack of social interaction.

As well as social changes, there are a multitude of other factors that affect the farming workforce like no other. Market fluctuations, heavy admin, increasing amounts of legislation, impending bills, loans, mortgages, anxiety about the weather, a poor harvest, animal disease, crippling feed prices and ever-declining milk prices, uncertainty around Brexit... all these factors take their toll.

Add to the mix relationship difficulties, physical and mental exhaustion and perhaps a functional attitude to death. All these factors contribute hugely to stress and high levels of frustration which, when combined, can so easily turn into depression.

What then, to be done? Our farmers today fill our supermarket shelves with vegetables, bread, dairy products and meat. Brexit or not, we could not survive without what they do for a living.

Farmers, perhaps like soldiers, can have a very real fear of being seen to be vulnerable, rather than strong-minded and in control. Both groups know the hardships, the searing exhaustion, the physical and mental demands placed upon them and the tenacity required merely to survive.

Just as we attempt to ensure our veteran soldiers receive the very best mental health care on offer, so we should ensure that members of our farming industry receive the same. Our personal responsibilities, however, should not just rest there.

It is widely acknowledged that farmers, by having easy access to the means, increase their risk of carrying out and dying from an impulsive suicidal act. This may account in part for the fact that members of the farming industry are less likely to leave a suicide note.

It is relatively easy to ask an individual with a broken leg how they are coping. How much harder is it to ask the same person about their mental health, even when there are visible signs of anxiety and stress? But it needs to be done. Depression and suicide are the silent killers within the farming community.

So please ask the vital questions. Are you feeling depressed? Are you feeling that life is not worth living any more? Do you ever feel that suicide might be a way out? Never hesitate to establish some measure of dialogue and then provide a listening ear when needed.

Suicide is not always the chosen route. It can happen when the pain felt exceeds the resources at hand for coping with that pain. Simple courageous acts of intervention and practical kindness can let that person know he matters to us, even when his inner critic tries to persuade him otherwise. And that timely intervention may just save a life.

Never let us take our farming industry for granted. They need our support like no other.


One of the organisations providing mental health support to East Anglia’s farming industry is The YANA (You Are Not Alone) Project.

Jo Hoey from the Norfolk-based charity said: “When the YANA Project launched 10 years ago, there was little talk of the mental health issues facing our farming communities but that attitude has definitely changed for the better. There is more awareness, the uptake for the YANA-funded counselling has increased as have calls to the confidential helpline.

“YANA is also funding a series of two-day mental health first aid courses for those working in our industry to create a ‘YANA Army’ of those who can support others.

“Sadly, what has not improved are the disturbing statistics of the suicide rates with Norfolk having one of the highest rates in the UK and those in farming are particularly vulnerable.

“Together with The Farming Community Network and with the support of Lady Dannatt, we are determined to improve on this by encouraging those in our industry to take suicide prevention training and, if concerned about someone, to intervene appropriately. It takes courage but you will never regret being a good friend.”

• For more information visit The YANA Project website or call the helpline on 0300 323 0400.

• For additional support, contact the Samaritans on 116 123, or the Samaritans website has good guidelines if you think someone close to you is struggling to cope.

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