Does a farmer’s lifestyle boost mental health or is there a hidden side to life on the farm?
Spring is in the air. Across the land, crops are being sown, lamb, piglets and calves take their first steps, eggs are collected and sheep are sheered. To outsiders, the farming life seems idyllic; an escape from the stresses of city life and office work.
The Farming Lifestyle
When farmers including Hannah Jackson, the Red Shepherdess, Amanda Owen, the Yorkshire Shepherdess, Countryfile’s Adam Henson and Hill Top Farm Girl, Leigh Weston share their lifestyle, they attract thousands of followers. People are drawn to the beauty of the countryside and the idea of becoming more self-sufficient.
The close bond with animals, especially loyal sheepdogs is another allure. Then there is the freedom that farm children have; out exploring and getting hands-on.
We know that fresh air and an active lifestyle are good for mental well-being. We know that eating fresh, unprocessed food is beneficial to our health and contact with animals can lift our spirits. It can, therefore, be shocking to discover that agriculture has one of the highest rates of suicide of any industry.
What are the Mental Health Challenges of Farming?
In addition to the big farmhouse kitchen, the rolling hills and the rosy-cheeked faces, farmers are under extreme pressures. From month to month, they face many unpredictable factors that can throw any plans or stability up in the air.
A loss of subsidies, fluctuating market prices or a viral outbreak can add to financial pressures. The British weather, especially as we are experiencing more extreme conditions, can destroy a harvest.
In 2021, the University of Exeter and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute (RABI) collaborated on the largest study of farming lives for years. Around 15,000 respondents provided insight into the industry.
The Big Farming Survey* revealed that 1 in 10 farmers felt often or always lonely. This was higher in the younger generations, who were also the least likely to confide in others. The Covid Pandemic gave us all a taste of how difficult social isolation can be, but this is the norm for many farm workers. When faced with difficulties, it can feel as though there is no one to help you through.
A farm is also a work environment with risks; machinery, physically demanding work and long hours are some reasons why the accident rate is high. Over half of those surveyed suffered from physical pain which impacts their ability to carry out work, as well as being the cause of anxiety. Depression was reported by a third of agricultural workers, but specifically, 43% of women farmers reported feelings of depression.
The biggest cause of stress was the regulation, compliance and inspections that govern agricultural businesses. Fulfilling industry red tape and providing all the necessary documentation can be costly, time-consuming and stressful. Financial hardship and the impact of rural crime were also dominant themes.
It is also difficult for farmers to take time out. The hours are long and responsibility for livestock, farm workers and getting tasks done mean holidays are rare.
What can be done to Support Farmers’ Mental Health?
The results of the survey coupled with the ONS suicide rate by Occupation data** shows the urgent need to recognise and support the farming community.
Some farmers are taking up the gauntlet of reducing the stigma of poor mental health. They include Sam and Emily Stables, who attracted National Lottery funding for their charity; We are Farming Minds. The money and support from volunteers have enabled them to provide a 24-hour hotline specifically focused on mental health in the Hereford agricultural industry. Similar mental health support services are offered across the country, including YANA for East Anglian and Worcestershire farmers.
Nationwide, counselling support and mental health training are offered by RABI and education, mental health first aid training and resources are provided by Yellow Wellies; the Farm Safety Foundation. The Farming Community Network provides information on both business and personal resilience.
For anyone in regular contact with farmers, Mental Health First Aid Training can be an invaluable tool. It helps to spot the signs of poor mental well-being and crucially, know how to respond. Reducing the isolation and increasing the support available to the farming community can play a vital part in improving well-being.
Farming may seem like the rural idyll, yet take off the rose-tinted glasses and you’ll see a profession full of highs and lows. We all depend on farmers for food, so we must provide them with greater recognition and better support.