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Farming’s mental health crisis

The future of UK farming is at a crossroads - the establishment of the new Agricultural Bill will shape the way our food is produced once we have left the EU and will be much discussed and debated. But it won’t highlight the hidden crisis in farming which is a mental health crisis. Ben Davis investigates the reasons behind the high rates of suicide amongst UK farmers.

 

TRIGGER WARNING - THIS ARTICLE COVERS A SENSITIVE SUBJECT THAT MIGHT BE TRIGGERING FOR SOME PEOPLE

We rely on farmers from across the Globe to produce the food we eat, the fibres for the clothes we wear, the ingredients for the cosmetics we use on our skin and the fuel we use to power modern-life. However, many farmers across the planet are in crisis.

Agriculture has become the profession with the highest rates of suicide. In the US, for example, farmers are five times more likely to end their own life than any other occupation and this is echoed all over the Planet. As Debbie Weingarten writes: “An Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.”

Stress and poor mental health is affecting all areas of the UK population; however the impact of this is most destructive for men between the ages of 20 and 44 for whom suicide is now  the number one leading cause of death. In 2015, it was reported that 6,188 people took their own lives, of these, 4,997 were men, with the highest demographic being men aged 40-44.

The Samaritans link many factors to this gender gap, however they place particular emphasis on the traditional image of masculinity that prizes power, control and invincibility. This can often hinder the development of strong emotional and social skills which are needed to cope with prolonged periods of distress, loss of control and crisis. For those who find themselves unable to cope with such times in a healthy manner, impulsive and destructive responses such as drug use and suicide can feel like the only solution.  

According to the ONS’ data on suicides by occupation, between 2011 and 2015 roughly one agricultural worker took their own life per week. The rate of self-imposed deaths in farming has been linked to the decline of traditional support structures; as more young people are choosing not to work on the family farm, fewer farm workers are employed on a regular basis; and the loss of village shops and pubs means there are few places for people to meet. These sit alongside increasing external pressures for the farmer.

Changing Shape of Rural Britain

Over the last 70 years, agriculture across the Globe has undergone dramatic changes to keep up with a rapidly-modernising world. This has led the industry down a path away from small-scale family farms to large-scale intensive operations; reducing the number of people involved and greatly increasing the use of big machinery, fertilisers and pesticides. Not only have these changes had disastrous impacts on the environment but they have also had serious ramifications for the farmers themselves. In the UK this process of change has been happening for more than three centuries, ever since land became enclosed by Landowners and Parliament during the Industrial Revolution.

By its very nature, farming can be an isolating job; remote work environments, long hours and a 24/7 work pattern that limits the amount of contact farmers get with other people. Since the Industrial Revolution, this isolation has only intensified: Between 1851 and 2015 the number of land workers in the UK fell from nearly 1.7million to just 476,000. Today just 0.7% of the population produces 62% of the UK’s food supply and manage 70% of the land surface. This decline has additionally led to the closure of village pubs and shops which were the centre of rural life.

In their 2009 study of 80 farms, Matt Lobley and colleagues from the Centre for Rural Policy Research at the University of Exeter, found that not only has the changing structure of agriculture had a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of farmers but many farmers find it  “too depressing” to spend time with other farmers and so are less inclined to try and meet others who share the same experiences which means they miss out on that potential support too.

Those that do still farm are faced not just with increasing levels of alienation, but also increased bureaucracy, market volatility, financial stresses and environmental pressures, all in addition to the usual stresses of managing a farm; often doing so alone and with little support.

All of these factors place a significant strain on the health and wellbeing of our farmers but perhaps the one most critical is the fact farmers are so badly paid for what they do and produce. As Lush Times writer, Katie Dancey-Downs, reported in her article ‘The cost of cheap food’ - which was based on a document produced by the UK charity People Need Nature - ,many farmers are often earning less than the cost of production and are reliant on government subsidies to earn a sufficient living. You can trace the root cause of this back to the supermarkets. Shockingly, for every pound spent in a store only 9p goes to the farmer, and an average of 3p is lost for every litre of milk they produce. This widespread culture of cheap food also leads to many farm labourers working in unethical and unsafe conditions, whilst being underpaid - putting many of them at serious risk of injury or worse.

According to the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute (R.A.B.I), financial pressures are not the sole cause of farmer suicides. Spokesperson, Philippa Spackman, told Farmers Weekly: “At least two farmers we know of took their lives because the person who used to complete paperwork, such as livestock passports or single farm payment applications, had died or moved away.” This anecdote highlights additional often hidden pressures on the farming community and shows how there are such complex and multifaceted causes underpinning this crisis.

Despite the alarming number of people suffering, depression and suicide is still a taboo subject in the farming community. Will Evans, a farmer offering his own account of the issue in hope of encouraging more people to speak out, wrote for Farmers Weekly: “Farming is a small community where everyone knows each other. No one wants a neighbour saying: ‘Did you hear about so-and-so? Lost his/her marbles.’” and “The embarrassment at the perceived “weakness” is enough to stop many from reaching out and asking for help.”

Will continues in his article to argue that the very ‘British’ phenomenon of “putting on a brave face” and bearing the pain needs to stop. Something he himself has been struggling to do. He admits: “It became a real issue for me. We don’t in my Celtic family you see? We just bottle up all our worries and every day concerns for months until we explode.” Will says he  counts himself as lucky for having a wife that encourages him to talk about his daily stresses and concerns. However, not everyone has this level of support so he argues that, “it’s up to us all to look out for the signs of this in our neighbours, friends and family members, because no one’s immune to this illness,” adding that, “The first step is to simply listen to a person’s problems.”

Support for Our Farmers

Will’s advice echoes what many psychologist and leading support groups are now saying. As psychiatrist and husband to a farmer, Dr David Middleton has a unique perspective on this issues; he advises: “The first step is to simply listen to a person’s problems. Being able to talk things through can be therapeutic in itself.”

However, this is difficult to do when the people suffering are more isolated and unwilling to be open about how they feel. And to make matters worse, Mental Health support is normally more concentrated in areas of high population and spread more thinly in rural areas.

Rural charities such as the Farming Community Network, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (R.A.B.I), and the Farm Safety Foundation are now working to bring attention to this issue and to help break the taboo surrounding mental health so that more people are able to come out and be open about their emotions.

The Farming Community Network is a UK-wide team of volunteers from the farming community and rural churches that provides a helpline and visiting service to farming people and families who are facing difficulties. Many of the volunteers are farmers themselves, which means that those calling the Helpline are able to talk openly with people who truly understand what they are going through and who can help them find the support that they need. The Helpline is available every day of the year from 7am until 11pm. This service has been described as indispensable and a true lifesaver by many people in the farming community.

The R.A.B.I is a grant-making charity that provides support to retired and working farming people who find themselves in financial difficulty. Support is tailored to the individual, and can include one-off and regular grants, as well as replacing essential household items, funding for disability equipment, care home fees, relief farm staff and training grants to help people develop skills to bring in off-farm income. In 2016, the organisation saw a fivefold increase in the number of calls to its helpline with the majority being concerned with the impact of flooding and delayed subsidy payments. Farmers also reported feeling the effects of cuts to Local Authority and NHS spending, leaving the most vulnerable in the farming community in need of much more support.

The Farm Safety Foundation was established by the National Farmers Union (NFU) insurance arm, NFU Mutual, to raise awareness of the dangers of working on a farm;  something that becomes very apparent when you learn that UK farmers are 18 times more likely to have a fatal injury at work than in any other industry. Many of the accidents and illnesses taking place on farms can be linked to stress. In February 2018, the Foundation launched the wee- long Mind Your Head awareness campaign which aims to encourage farmers and farming families not to neglect themselves, but to put themselves first, ‘open up’ and get help and advice.

As Charles W. Smith, chief director of the Farm Community Network explains: “When it comes to important farm safety equipment, people usually think of tractor roll bars, shedding gates for livestock and high-vis clothing. But there is another piece of kit, which when used properly, is even better – the mind.

“It is very easy to underestimate just how important the mind is when it comes to farming… However, if your mind and body are not well-maintained, as well as your machinery, it is very easy to become less conscious of the dangers around you.”

Whilst the seriousness of the issue of Mental Health in farming is now widely accepted amongst the charities working in the sector, it remains absent from the industry’s academic and training curriculum. Last year, Jerome Fielding launched a petition to redress this and get mental health issues onto the agricultural curriculum for colleges and universities. He launched the campaign after a close University friend took his own life, along with two other people. Jerome says: “We got so much teaching on health and safety when operating machinery due to the high fatality rate in the industry but when farmers are more likely to die from suicide than agricultural fatalities do we not need teaching about our mental health too? Yes, we do.”

Jerome has already achieved significant success, with the University of Nottingham looking at providing mental health training alongside other efforts to change the culture around mental health. He has also been contacted by one of the leading agricultural course designers - BTEC Pearson, who showed him how they have included Mental Health as part of a unit in the extended certificate in agriculture qualification.

One agriculture graduate signed the petition and said: “University does prepare you for many things in life but not for depression and mental health, which is just as important as physical health.”

With such a complex and difficult issue, it is almost impossible to suggest actions that everyday people can make to help farmers. However it is clear that there needs to be a wider cultural shift surrounding food that stops taking farmers for granted and starts acknowledging the very important role that they play on a daily basis. We can all work towards dismantling the stigmas surrounding mental health and depression, look out for the warning signs, open ourselves to others and provide a space for people to express those concerns and issues which, if left bottled up, may just cost them their well being, even their lives.

Help & Support Information

 

If you have any concerns or worries about yourself, or anyone you know, these are some of the groups that you can reach out to:

Samaritans
0845 790 9090
Farm Crisis Network
0845 367 9990
Rural Stress Helpline
0845 094 8286
YANA (You Are Not Alone)
0300 323 0400
Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution
0300 303 7373
Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide
0844 561 6855
GATEPOST for RSABI
0300 111 4166

Author Bionote

Ben is a member of the Lush Buying team - providing support to the buyers on the best agroecological practices for sourcing ingredients. He has spent many years studying the UK’s agricultural industry and has been made aware of the many issues that are unknown to most consumers.

Photo Credit: Rwendland, Wikimedia Commons

 

The day the shelves are empty is the day people will realise how important farmers are - Anonymous, The Guardian

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