U.K. Update: Let’s take farmer mental health seriously
March 6, 2023 by Chris McCullough
It may be somewhat of a taboo subject, but farmers need to open up more and discuss their feelings in order to boost their mental health – before it is too late. So say health professionals, rural support groups and farm family members across the world. But farmers, being stubborn, shy or even too macho, tend to lock their feelings away.
For many farmers worldwide, taking the opportunity to sit down and talk to their peers, family or help groups just might save their lives.
From the outside looking in, some farmers seem to appear calm and collected, but in reality they are battling their demons on their own.
The figures surrounding farmers’ poor mental health are quite concerning, and more work and support needs to be on offer to help them open up.
Recent research in the Republic of Ireland suggests almost a quarter of farmers there are at risk of suicide. In the U.K., 36 percent of farmers admit to being “possibly” or “probably” depressed. A total of 44 farm-related suicides were registered in England and Wales alone in 2020.
A recent study in England by the University of Exeter and The Farming Community Network reported farmers felt there was a huge lack of public appreciation for them and understanding of the work they do.
Many farmers interviewed felt undervalued, identifying a feeling of “disconnect” between farmers and wider society, and a lack of understanding from the general public about farming and its unique pressures.
Loneliness was also found to be linked to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Other factors include commodity prices, weather, paperwork, livestock disease and animal welfare. Some farmers interviewed said they had been subject to abuse by members of the public while carrying out their daily work, especially when using tractors on the roads.
Recognize the signs
Family members and friends can look out for the signs of a farmer suffering from poor mental health and encourage them to open up more about their problems. These signs could include: a sudden change of work routine, lack of sleep or changing sleep patterns, behavioral changes such as being very quiet, avoiding people, forgetfulness or even things like the farmyard becoming very untidy. There are also some physical indicators, including stress, tension, a fast-beating heart, breathlessness or poor personal hygiene and presence.
The social factor
Rebecca Wheeler, senior research fellow from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, said: “Cultural loneliness refers to feelings that arise from a sense of difference with others in the wider community, including feelings of being an outsider or being misunderstood by other cultural groups.
“It’s concerning to see that this type of loneliness repeatedly emerged in participants’ stories, with many farmers describing or alluding to a strong sense of disconnection with the wider public, and of feeling undervalued and misunderstood by government and society.”
Jude McCann, CEO of The Farming Community Network, said: “Sadly, many people, particularly in urban environments, have very little exposure to farming, and as a result often a limited understanding of the challenges involved and the hard work and long hours that are required to ensure food is produced for the country and to a high standard. We hope that the findings of this study will help to encourage people to appreciate their local farmers more and to be more aware of what is involved in farming, helping to bridge the gap between farmer and non-farmer, and rural and urban environments.”
Some of the suggestions by the researchers to address these issues recommended the need to strengthen connections between farming and non-farming communities in order to avoid farmers feeling isolated from society.
This could be carried out by enhancing opportunities for community engagement with agriculture, improving public dialogue in relation to food and farming, and by promoting local food networks that facilitate more direct relationships between producers and consumers. •