Training and collaboration key to defusing mental health crisis in agriculture

Picture: Archant/Lloyds

Picture: Archant/Lloyds - Credit: Archant

Like many sectors in the UK, key workers in the agricultural sector are navigating challenges inflicted by coronavirus. But many are battling mental health issues, too. As part of our Exploring Mental Health in Agriculture series, Charles Bliss spoke to the CLA about how mental health first aid training, professional advice and cross-organisational efforts can help alleviate the mental health challenges affecting agricultural workers in East Anglia.

Key workers in the agricultural sector are battling both the coronavirus pandemic and a mental healt

Key workers in the agricultural sector are battling both the coronavirus pandemic and a mental health epidemic Picture: Getty/IStockPhoto - Credit: Getty Images

A litany of crises faces the agricultural sector: Brexit trade deals, flood damage, changing agricultural policy, climate systems breakdown and latterly the coronavirus, to name a few.

Amid such pressure, it is no wonder that agricultural workers are also struggling with their mental health, particularly as the sector is already characterised by so much uncertainty. In 2018, 83 suicides were registered in England and Wales among those working in agricultural and related trades, including forestry and fishing.

More than ever, safeguarding the interests of those who work in rural environments is crucial. The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) is just one example of an organisation set up to represent farmers, landowners and rural businesses. Members benefit from expert advice on matters such as tax, planning, tenancies, legal support and environmental schemes. Since the coronavirus outbreak, the CLA has addressed over 500 member enquiries, offering advice on topics such as business resilience, grant funding and government support schemes. Increasingly, members getting in contact are also struggling with their mental wellbeing.

CLA East Regional Director Cath Crowther is based in Newmarket. “I grew up in the farming industry and so mental health in agriculture is sadly something that I am very aware of,” Cath says. “Often members ring us at their lowest point.” In January, the CLA held in-house mental health training available for all staff, hosted by the Farming Community Network (FCN), and in February CLA Deputy President Mark Tufnell announced that they would back the third annual Mind Your Head campaign from the Farming Safety Foundation, which seeks to preserve and protect the physical and emotional wellbeing of agricultural workers across the country.

“We’ve been working with lots of other organisations to highlight some of the help and support available,” Cath explains. “We work closely with charities including FCN and the You Are Not Alone network (YANA).

“Through working together, everyone in the industry can raise awareness, while highlighting the resources available and reminding everyone that it is good to talk.”

CLA East regional director Cath Crowther Picture; CLA

CLA East regional director Cath Crowther Picture; CLA - Credit: Archant

Another key purpose of the CLA involves lobbying government: “We formulate forward-thinking policies and argue their case to policy makers to ensure farmer and landowner interests are being heard at all levels of government,” Cath says. “Mental health is something I often raise with MPs.

“Sometimes policy is put in place that might fit with urban areas but not rural areas. We are trying to make sure that everything is rural-proofed, ensuring that politicians are conscious of rural issues and they are aware of the pressures that farmers are under.”

When unaddressed, these pressures can have tragic consequences. Recently, a Norfolk farmer took his own life. At the funeral, a collection for YANA raised a significant amount of money. It was decided that the donations would be used to establish a two-day training course for mental health first aiders to demonstrate how to respond when confronted with conditions such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression and personality disorders, and how to respond in a crisis to help somebody stay alive until medical help arrives.

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CLA Rural Surveyor Claire Wright completed the course, alongside employees of Norfolk County Council and Norfolk Showground. Claire shares some valuable advice on how to help a friend or colleague struggling with mental ill health.

“Listen without judging,” Claire says. “Even in a normal day-to-day conversation, if you are slightly distracted because you’re playing with your phone, it is actually really difficult for somebody to talk to you.

“Imagine what it feels like for somebody who is going through a mental health crisis. It is important for them to feel like they are your only priority at that moment. Try to display some empathy and listen. It can be so helpful to somebody experiencing distress.”

Listen without judging, says CLA Rural Surveyor Claire Wright Picture: CLA/

Listen without judging, says CLA Rural Surveyor Claire Wright Picture: CLA/ - Credit: Archant

Claire emphasises that it is also vital that you take care of yourself while supporting others.

“If you are supporting somebody with mental health difficulties, it can be emotionally draining. You might benefit from speaking to a charity or a friend or family member.”

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To listen to the ‘Exploring Mental Health in Agriculture’ webinar please click here.