Concerns on farmers’ mental health

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The mind and body are the greatest assets a farmer can own - it is vital they are protected.

Mental health is a topic that so many men are failing to speak publicly on. Farmers in particular can often use their busy lifestyle to hide the mental challenges that both they and their families face.

Without hesitation I can openly say that having lived in a rural area for over 50 years, I have never been more concerned about the mental health of farmers than what I am today. Poor prices, debt, biosecurity, severe weather, higher costs of living and meeting farm quality standards are just some examples of the burdens farmers face. In addition to this, the isolation of running a farm in a rural area can often be the heaviest burden, particularly if there is a lack of accessibility to local health providers. When we sit down and analyse the real and genuine trials facing the industry, we can tend to forget that these trials are being faced on a 24/7 basis by farmers, their wives and their families.

I want farmers to know and understand that they do not have to deal with these challenges on their own. Mental health charities are available right across the province and are offering men and women the private space to openly discuss and deal with their challenges. Being an MP for such a large rural area has brought me face to face with the tragic and devastating consequences that mental health has had on farmers. It is time for action, it is time our farmers stood up and spoke out.

Following discussions with local mental health charities, I have agreed to meet with the DEFRA Secretary of State, Liz Truss MP in the coming days to discuss the production of a Mental Health Strategy specifically designed and compiled for the farming industry. It is my belief that if we can achieve a long and short term strategy for the industry, then this will build confidence amongst farmers and I trust they will be more willing to speak out. A strategic plan with representations from Government, farmers and health professionals can reach right to the core of this problem and set out a clearer and positive path for the industry to take. Many farmers who have suffered mental health challenges in the past, can today speak of the positive nature in which they carry out their tasks, all because they spoke out and took advantage of the available support. When the DEFRA Committee Chairman Mr Neil Parish MP visited last year, it was he who indicated to me a state of poorer morale amongst Northern Irish farmers compared to those working in his heartland of South West England. Whilst our industry has so much to be proud and grateful for; general morale is not something we can boast of here in this province.

As I outlined in my opening passage, the mind and body are the greatest asset that any farmer can have. No matter what the daily itinerary is, it is the mind that will take the farmer through his daily tasks and it is the mind that will control the standard to which a job is done. Anxiety, stress and depression can be felt right across the industry, and the knock on effect to the farmers family can also be felt.

Cookstown-based ‘Rural Support’ are a volunteer-led charity who specifically work with farmers and their family to help assist with the mental challenges facing the industry. Speaking on the topic, the organisation stated, “increasing levels of debt, paper work, health problems, severe weather and changing family circumstances can cause stress and anxiety. We offer a listening and signposting service for farmers and rural families across Northern Ireland. We can provide face to face support, help you source information and advice about business finance and debt, single farm payments, benefits, mental health assistance and many other issues. If you’re feeling worried or stressed and would like to talk to someone in confidence, our trained volunteers are ready to help. All calls are confidential and the helpline operates from 8am to 11pm, seven days a week (voicemail and support options available at all other times) on 0845 6067 607.”

So many young people today are leaving our shores to work on farms abroad, this is a problem that I fully recognise and appreciate. If we take action now, we can witness young aspiring farmers entering a positive industry in Northern Ireland that is encouraged by their fathers. Mental health is real and it is taking a firm grip of so many farmers. Let’s work together on this, let’s stand up and speak out.