Communication and group support ‘very powerful’ in addressing mental health crisis in agriculture
PUBLISHED: 15:39 26 June 2020 | UPDATED: 15:43 26 June 2020
As part of our Exploring Mental Health in Agriculture series, supported by Lloyds Banking Group, Charles Bliss spoke to counsellor and psychotherapist Sally Storr about how one-to-one interaction and integration with social groups can start to address the dislocation felt among agricultural workers in the East of England.
Feelings of isolation and negative patterns of thought can become ingrained when we spend long periods of time alone – ultimately dragging down our mental state. This is something that many people can relate to since the coronavirus lockdown. But with long hours working in isolation as part of the job, it is something many of East Anglia’s rural workers may have dealt with for some time now, and may continue to experience long after lockdown is lifted.
Sally Storr is a counsellor and psychotherapist with a private practice in Norfolk. Before moving to Great Ryburgh in 2017, Sally lived in Switzerland for 23 years. During this time, she worked at the World Health Organisation completed a BSc in Psychology with the Open University and a Masters in Counselling with Webster University in Geneva, all while raising a family.
“I am interested in helping people work through their problems, anxieties and relationships,” Sally explains. “Becoming a mother and living in a different country contributed to my interest in the human psyche.”
It is the psyche of UK agricultural workers in particular that seems to be suffering disproportionately. A recent survey from the Farming Safety Foundation found that 84pc of farmers feel mental health is the biggest hidden danger facing the industry today, while it is estimated that more than one UK farmer dies by suicide each week.
“It is clear from high suicide rates that mental health in agriculture needs to be addressed in a comprehensive, honest and direct way,” says Sally, who receives referrals from You are Not Alone (YANA) – a project that offers mental health support to the farming community.
The agricultural industry remains a male-dominated arena – and outdated notions of what it means to be a man may contribute towards this crisis of mental health.
“In today’s society there is a significant masculine fear of being judged by others as weak or stupid,” Sally says. “Embedded gender stereotypes encourage the idea that men need to be invincible or that they should ‘man up’ and be able to deal with anything.
“My impression is that men often think they should do something practical to solve a problem rather than talking about feelings or emotions. Farmers also work very long hours and the more time you spend alone on a tractor or in a field somewhere, the harder it is to open up.
“The tendency when you’re on your own is to talk to yourself in a negative way about what you’re feeling. It is a vicious circle that pulls you down to a place where you feel very depressed.”
Sally highlights that communication is key to dismantling this taboo and breaking negative patterns of thought, but insists that empathy is needed if we are to help those who are struggling.
“When having a conversation, we should think about our words and actually be interested in the other person and what they have to say, rather than offering an automatic response,” Sally advises. “Spend some time on the person, be interested, those sorts of things can help us be more aware of each other and each other’s mental health.
“Communication is a two-way street and quite often it is about learning how to listen. Listening actively is half of a conversation, but people do not listen as much as they could.
“Take the time to have a proper conversation: look people in the eye, think about your body language, listen with interest, ask exploratory questions and leave space for the person to answer.”
In addition to one-to-one communication, Sally believes group support is also extremely important.
“Groups of people, even if online, can be very powerful,” Sally says. “Everybody brings their unique self to a group. Just by sharing within a group and those people listening can be incredibly beneficial.”
And Sally has a suggestion to address the isolation and loneliness felt by many in the agricultural sector which can often exacerbate mental health issues.
“It would be good to start a network exclusively for people in agriculture,” she says. “YANA already provides a confidential helpline, however, our rural workers also need somewhere they can talk to each other about their problems.
“Establishing a social network via online forums and community meet-ups at local cafes could be a good place to start.”
Find out more about Sally Storr’s private practice at www.blueskyreflections.com
To listen to the ‘Exploring Mental Health in Agriculture’ webinar please click here
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