Mental health debate seeks ways to ease the ‘silent suffering’ of farmers
- Credit: Archant
Urgent action is needed to galvanise community, industry and government efforts to break the stigma around mental health and end the “silent suffering” on East Anglia’s farms.
That was one of the messages from industry leaders who discussed the subject of mental health in agriculture during a webinar hosted by Archant and Lloyds Bank.
It is estimated that one person a week takes their own life in the farming industry and, according to the Farm Safety Foundation, last year 84pc of farmers under 40 said they believed poor mental health was the biggest danger facing a sector which is so often characterised by isolation and uncertainty.
Those shocking figures were discussed by panellists including Defra minister Victoria Prentis, Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, Melinda Raker of farming mental health charity YANA (You Are Not Alone) and Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union.
A raft of solutions were put forward, including more training for agricultural professionals to spot signs of mental health problems in the farmers they deal with, better resources for mental health services in rural areas and better signposting of the rural charities and counselling services which can offer help.
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Mr Freeman offered a three-point plan including implementing mental health discussions in all agricultural colleges, requiring better reporting of mental health issues by county and by sector to “focus minds”, and implementing a network of county counsellors to give farmers a recognisable local face to speak to if they needed help.
“The industry has got to look at that figure, that someone every week takes their own life,” he said. “I think if the industry itself gets a handle on who these people are and really why, then I think there would be a huge amount of public support for an industry saying: ‘Please be aware that what you think of as a happy and pastoral, Archers-type country existence where everybody is blissfully happy in their daffodils living the dream life – there’s actually a lot of silent suffering behind the scenes’.”
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Mrs Raker said YANA already has 17 counsellors working across Norfolk and Suffolk and the charity funded almost 400 hours of counselling last year. In the last 18 months, YANA has also provided training for almost 100 agricultural professionals to become mental health first aiders, and produced a national directory of all the 27 rural support groups across the country.
“I would love every rural MP to have one of these and make contact with the rural support group in their area,” she said.
Mrs Prentis said: “We will action that immediately.”
The minister added: “The government is committed to mental health parity with physical health, but I accept that we have a long way to go. There is real money going into the service and what we need to work with the third sector like YANA to make sure there are sufficient training people to help people very locally and on the ground.”
Other panellists included Matthew Hubbard, Lloyds Banking Group’s ambassador for the East of England, and Jon Duffy, chief executive of AF Group, formerly Anglia Farmers.
Mr Duffy said his business had also recognised the need for awareness training. “There is not enough support out there,” he said. “But as a business we took a decision 18 months ago to proactively train all our managers
“Farmers are very good at training themselves on sprayers or whatever else they need but there should also be a recognition of how can we help farmers access training on what is good mental health and how to maintain mental health.”
Mr Roberts said the heightened awareness of farming pressures during the coronavirus outbreak could add weight to the industry’s messages. He said: “One of things coming out of Covid-19 is people are taking more of an interest in food and farming and the countryside and this is one aspect that could play into that.
“It is also about using those around farming. There are not that many people on the farm these days, but actually every day a milk tanker driver drives down the road of many dairy farms and every day we have some of Jon’s colleagues and Matt’s colleagues contacting farmers – and it is about using that wider network.
“It is the auctioneer, the vet, the banker, the fertiliser salesman. They are the people who are getting down farm drives and can spot differences. It is about talking to farmers to spot those signs.”
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO SHARE
Farmers were also urged to share their personal experiences to help others talk more openly about mental health issues.
One of the panellists for the webinar was Matthew Hubbard, Lloyds Banking Group’s ambassador for the East of England, whose sister Emily took her own life 22 years ago.
He said: “It made me realise that more people needed to be aware of mental health and the stigma and the embarrassment needed to be spoken about,” he said. “Since then, the discussion around mental health has come a long way in 22 years, but it is still not quite there yet.
“We are making huge strides but there are still pockets of society where it is not spoken about. It might sound simple to say that raising awareness is still important but if more people are aware that other people have faced similar challenges, it can help them and that has to be a good thing.
“This is something we are passionate about and we thought it would be useful to convene experts and policy-makers to raise awareness of the issues related to mental health in agriculture and help remove the stigma. Also we wanted to provide signposting for where support is available for those struggling to find the right help.
“Even if only a handful of people become more aware, the fact that we are talking about this and removing the stigma is really important.”
Mrs Raker said there was a simple process for starting a conversation about mental health.
“It is the ‘ask twice’ policy,” she said. “Ask: ‘How are you?’ They say: ‘I’m fine’, but then ask in a different tone: ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’ and you will get a different answer. If the answer sounds wavery, say: ‘Let’s go and have a coffee and talk about it. Communication is two-way traffic. Look out for your friends. Pick up on the vibes.”
• YANA offers confidential mental health support and counselling for those in farming and rural industries in Norfolk and Suffolk. Contact the helpline on 0300 323 0400 or visit the YANA website.