What makes our farming communities so vulnerable to mental health problems?

Isolation, uncertainty and financial pressures are among the factors contributing to mental health i

Isolation, uncertainty and financial pressures are among the factors contributing to mental health issues among our farming communities, says Norfolk-based charity YANA. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

The death of a prominent Norfolk farmer has proven the need for more open discussions about mental health within rural communities which – for many reasons – are particularly susceptible to suicide, writes JO HOEY, of farming mental health charity YANA (You Are Not Alone).

With the tragic news of a farmer's death by suicide, one has to ask why the industry is so susceptible to this tragedy with, on average, one farmer taking their own life every week in the UK.

It is clear that easy access to the means are a major factor but what precipitates those feelings of despair?

There is no doubt that the isolation of the workplace plays a major part. Until the advent of colossal tractors, harvesters and machinery, a farm of 500 acres might have employed a dozen men. There was camaraderie throughout the working day and as they made their way home, possibly all living in the same village.

The now-defunct cattle or corn markets were good meeting places and not simply for trade. Today, the driver might sit on a tractor, in isolation, all day – the task might be monotonous, giving a lot of time to think or maybe overthink, the problems of life.

Make no mistake, these tragic deaths are rarely due to one single problem and those in farming are as susceptible as everyone else to depression due to illness, bereavement, relationship problems or a genetic disposition.

However, those in farming have traditionally been poor at communicating about their own health or business problems and have carried on, proudly and stoically. Very few make use of any mental health support provision, either from the NHS or relevant charities, and some are reluctant to even discuss the full picture of their health issues with their GP.

But what are the other problems with the industry which play a part in someone becoming so desperate?

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• Family expectations: A farm might have been in a family for generations resulting in an unwritten expectation of continuing in the family business even though an alternative career or lifestyle beckons.

• Financial issues: Frequently it is the unexpected that causes the greatest stress; a major breakdown on a tractor could cost £5,000, delays in payments have a huge impact particularly on smaller farms, an unexpected drop in commodity prices, and the continuous drive for cheap food – just one example is that potato prices are the same as in 1984 although the overhead costs have soared, and a bottle of water costs more than a bottle of milk.

• The unknown: Animal diseases, a shortage of fodder, drought or flood, a major machinery breakdown.

• Lack of respite from work: Too many farmers are unwilling to give themselves time away even for a day or two. Many work single-handedly with no-one to care for the stock in their absence.

• Increased regulation: Maintaining high standards of food production while supporting wildlife and biodiversity are the most essential part of every farming business but there is a cost both financially and in terms of time spent on form-filling which is not always easy to an essentially practical farmer.

• Brexit: The massive uncertainties are already impacting on farming businesses with some in East Anglia already giving up growing crops which are dependent on high levels of seasonal workers.

It takes a lot of courage for anyone to speak out or seek help when the going gets tough and, as has been highlighted this week, the farming community as a whole needs to be better at both communicating – and listening – when it comes to mental health issues.

The YANA Project recently funded and hosted a two-day mental health first aid course, equipping delegates from relevant charities and businesses to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental ill health and how to signpost others to relevant support. With an aim of building a 'YANA Army' of first aiders, there is hope that early signs of mental ill health will be spotted in friends or colleagues in this vulnerable industry and help put in place before desperation sets in.

The YANA Project deals specifically with mental health and provides confidential support and funding for counselling in Norfolk, Suffolk and Worcestershire. The YANA website provides useful information for anyone affected by depression or stress, symptoms to look out for and action to take for themselves or if they are concerned about someone else. The helpline 0300 323 0400 is completely confidential and emails to johoey@yanahelp.org will receive a prompt response.

The Farming Community Network also provides confidential and pastoral support with volunteers who will 'walk with you' to find a positive way through problems. They can be contacted on 03000 111 999.