Fresh call for industry to pull together to turnaround mental health strain on farms

A conference entitled 'Help Take The Strain' will be held at Pavilions of Harrogate on March 22.
A conference entitled 'Help Take The Strain' will be held at Pavilions of Harrogate on March 22.
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The agricultural industry is being urged to pull together to help combat the impact of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues on an increasing number of farmers in Yorkshire.

With agricultural charities reporting increases in the volume of calls to their helplines, and reports of mental health difficulties having risen, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) is teaming up with the Yorkshire Agricultural Society, the Yorkshire Rural Support Network and Barclays bank to urge everyone in the agricultural supply chain to “help take the strain”.

In a crisis, sit down with someone for just half an hour and start a normal conversation and don’t treat them any differently.

Peter Waistell, an NFU group secretary for the Barnard Castle area.

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To support this message, a free half-day conference in Harrogate later this month will focus on how people can spot the signs of someone who is struggling with their mental health, speak to them about what is happening and direct them to the right help and support.

“Awareness is growing that as an industry we all have a responsibility to help each other deal with farming’s hidden struggle,” said Adam Bedford, the NFU’s regional director for Yorkshire and the North East.

Read more: Social farms can be part of a cathartic process

“Despite concerted efforts over the last few years to promote the importance of health and safety on farm, the industry continues to have a poor safety record and it is our belief that increasing stress is a key factor in the number of accidents, which annually result in an average of 32 fatalities across the UK.

“Mental health problems are very difficult to talk about and the unique nature of farming life can exacerbate the situation, with farmers often working in isolation, working very long hours and facing unique problems beyond their control; for example falling farmgate prices, weather impacts and late payments of farm support.

“Given this challenge and the fact that all too often farmers do not prioritise their health and are often reluctant to ask for help, we hope to encourage everyone involved in the farming industry, from our own group secretaries to vets, feed reps, grain buyers and the like, to do everything possible to help farmers struggling to cope with the increasing pressures they are under.”

Among the speakers at the forthcoming conference will be Peter Waistell, an NFU group secretary for the Barnard Castle area, who will relay his experience of helping a farmer through a breakdown after his father died.

Grief left the farmer in question in a position where he was struggling to carry out daily tasks on the farm. His plight was brought to Mr Waistell’s attention by associates who did not know how else to intervene.

After turning up at the farm for a chat over a cup of tea, Mr Waistell gained an understanding of the problems affecting the farmer and he helped him get back into a routine on the farm.

A group of local farmers were drafted in to help with a few tasks on the farm and over time, the farmer became an active member of the farming community again.

Just how to approach a member of the farming community about their situation will be discussed at the conference and Mr Waistell said: “My message is don’t underestimate the power of a cuppa. It’s the most normal thing we do every day. In a crisis, sit down with someone for just half an hour and start a normal conversation and don’t treat them any differently. For the person affected, being recognised for being a normal human being really helps.”

He said that with increased mechanisation there are fewer workers on farms and the tendency for farm holdings to be larger now than they were in the past, means farmers can find themselves more isolated than in previous generations.

“Everyone knows there’s an underlying problem and it is getting worse. Everyone needs to keep an eye on their neighbour and have that chat if they see there is a problem.”

The Rural Support Network at the Yorkshire Agricultural Society tries to mitigate some causes of mental health by offering farmer health checks at livestock marts and machinery shows, holding farming community lunches and events for women living and working on farms.

Kate Dale, the network’s co-ordinator, said: “With statistics showing one farmer suicide every week, everyone working in the wider industry needs to be aware of how to spot signs and how they might be able to help.”

The NFU’s Mr Bedford said he hoped for a good turnout at the conference and that although it is primarily aimed at members of the agricultural supply chain, farmers also have a vital role in supporting their friends and neighbours or family members.

He said: “The event is also open to any farmers with a particular interest in this area. Together I believe we can make a difference and show how effective the industry can be when we all work together.”

EVENT LINE-UP

The ‘Help Take the Strain’ conference at Pavilions of Harrogate at the Great Yorkshire Showground will be held on Thursday, March 22 from 9.30am. To book a place, email north.east@nfu.org.uk or call 01904 451550.

Other speakers include John Pinches, regional agriculture director of Barclays, farmer David Martin, psychotherapist Aarun Naik, consultant psychiatrist Dr Hany El Sayeh and Sally Conner, regional manager of the RABI charity.

Helpline support for the farming community is available via the FCN on 03000 111 999 and RABI on 0808 281 9490.