It's time for farmers to speak out about mental health issues - and these are the people who will listen

(left to right) Lead Chaplain Rev Dianne Gamble  with farmer Mautrice Duffield from Kilburn  and Yvonne  Bowling Auction Mart Chaplain in the Gavel cafe at Thrsk Auction Mart. Credit: Gary Longbottom
(left to right) Lead Chaplain Rev Dianne Gamble with farmer Mautrice Duffield from Kilburn and Yvonne Bowling Auction Mart Chaplain in the Gavel cafe at Thrsk Auction Mart. Credit: Gary Longbottom
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In my near thirty years of writing about agriculture, farming and the rural way of life one statistic has always loomed darkly over the often solitary and isolated existence of the farmer.

As the festive season approaches with all its seasonal hubbub of fun, laughter and merriment, for those with issues of the heart it can perhaps be the trigger that once again highlights that same statistic.

Yvonne Bowling Thirsk Auction Mart Chaplain (left) with Lead Chaplain Rev Dianne Gamble at Thirsk Auction Mart. Credit: Gary Longbottom

Yvonne Bowling Thirsk Auction Mart Chaplain (left) with Lead Chaplain Rev Dianne Gamble at Thirsk Auction Mart. Credit: Gary Longbottom

It is so easy to trip out the usual fact about farming, alongside the medical profession, forming the highest suicide rate. There are few or perhaps none of us who will ever be able to explain why someone takes their own life.

Nobody can truly know for sure whether it is possible to avert such a tragedy, but there are those who are trying their very best with care, friendship and a listening ear.

Stress and depression, often regarded as two of the main anxieties that experts believe lead to this state of mind, can come from family fallouts, money, drugs, health issues, loss of partners or a family member and many more, maybe even a cocktail of them all.

"The challenges for the farming community are significant on many levels," says Rev Dianne Gamble who heads up a trio of agricultural chaplains at Thirsk livestock market.

Yvonne  Bowling Thirsk Auction Mart Chaplain (left) with Lead Chaplain Rev Dianne Gamble  at Thirsk Auction Mart.

Yvonne Bowling Thirsk Auction Mart Chaplain (left) with Lead Chaplain Rev Dianne Gamble at Thirsk Auction Mart.

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"This year I was approached by a mental health chaplain who was working with a group recognising particular needs of the farming community and how it is a sector that is effectively like a minority ethnic community with specific problems and needs.

"There is also a recognition that farmers are less likely to seek help and that when and if someone calls for help it is crisis time. We are now working with the mental health authority in looking at ways to make help that is available more widely known in the farming community."

What the agricultural chaplains are doing their best to create is an opportunity to talk.

"The idea of having chaplains in auction marts, and we’ve now nearly the whole of Yorkshire covered, is to be here regularly at every livestock mart sale day.

"It is about us building relationships so there is trust, so that farmers have somebody they feel they can turn to in a place where they attend regularly. This is their gathering place.

"We will have conversations about faith if something has come up in the media but we’re not looking necessarily for those conversations. Anything that follows on from that is great, but it’s not why we are here."

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Since her agricultural chaplaincy started at Thirsk, Dianne has seen first-hand on many occasions how just being available can help people talk and in so doing hopefully reduce stress.

"One time here I had a person alongside me sharing their experience of the death of their wife and how much he was still impacted by it. As we finished talking I turned and there was someone in the other seat wiping a tear and saying the same thing happened to them.

"Being at the mart in the café gave that opportunity of shared experience and hopefully it helped both people.

"Often we don’t know the impact we’ve had until there is some kind of third party feedback.

"On one occasion we were working, as we do alongside the Farming Community Network, with someone who happened to say how much they valued the chaplains in the mart because they could just have an ordinary conversation with someone who is interested in them. That’s the bit that makes all the difference."

"What we are doing is nothing to do with scoring points in showing God loves them," says Londoner-turned-Yorkshire woman Yvonne Bowling, whose career has included working with victims of crime through the police force.

"Caring for people and looking after them is something where I have a lot of background. We are here not just as a support network for the farmers themselves but also their families. Everyone is different.

"I’ve been coming here four years. Sometimes when we are sitting in the café farmers will come to us, other times if they are sat on their own we will go and sit with them. The conversation can be about anything. Somebody could be feeling low.’

"Some farmers don’t see anyone the rest of the week and when they come to the mart they are still on their own.

"If you look around any time at a mart there are always farmers sat by themselves, not all of them of course but, of those who are, it may be because they don’t feel they have anyone to talk to. We can reassure them that they’ve someone here and that every week they turn up there will be someone to talk to.

"Health issues can be another real problem. Some don’t have a GP because they’ve never been in to see a doctor and if they feel they have something wrong with them they may just say ‘I’m not feeling too good today’.

"Sometimes they need someone who will put it over that ‘you know, maybe you should see a doctor’. That also sometimes brings another problem because not all farmers want to pick up the phone for help.

"They are sometimes afraid of what is going to be said to them at the other end of the phone. There have been a number of times when I have phoned on their behalf, on any type of issue. That’s the trust we are all about.

"We represent the church and some people here don’t go, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help them. We just want to be here for them. The farmers like what we are doing. They think it is a good thing. Many of them have said to me: ‘The Government’s not helping us, but at least you’re here for us’. It is an absolutely enjoyable thing we are doing here. They love us and we love them. They know Dianne very well and appreciate all of our work.’

Finding ways in which farmers can open up and express their concerns about what particularly may be affecting them is what the Farming Community Network, headed up by Helen Benson, has been responsible for over many years.

The agricultural chaplaincy appointments at livestock marts throughout the county in recent years is extremely laudable and is without a shadow of doubt providing a service that may already be assisting in bringing down a truly dreadful statistic, but everyone in the mental health world and the farming sector realises there can never be enough work done to allay that ultimate tragedy.

"So much of Jesus’ missionary work was over shared meals," says Dianne. "The café at the mart is somewhere people can relax and talk. You don’t have to sit facing somebody as though in an interview either, you can sit side by side with a cup of tea and chat informally."