Farmers should consider how poor mental health can affect their ability to farm safely

Doug Avery AKA 'The Resilient Farmer.'
Doug Avery AKA 'The Resilient Farmer.'

If you were to ask a farmer what the most important asset is on his or her farm they may say it’s the land, it’s the soil, the livestock or the machinery, writes Rural Support Chief Executive Jude McCann.

Very few would say ‘it’s me- the farmer’.

Rural Support CEO Jude McCann

Rural Support CEO Jude McCann

A rural GP once told me that the farmer is the most important asset on the farm and he was absolutely right in his assertion.

The statistics around farm accidents do not make for pleasant reading. The Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) reported eight fatalities in the agricultural sector in 2018 and a recent survey in 2015 reported that there could be as many as 100 incidents per month on farms which required hospital treatment with sometimes life changing injuries acquired. In mainland UK the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reported 39 farm fatalities in 2018-2019 and highlights that farming remains one of the most hazardous industries with agriculture accounting for 1% of the work force but 20% of all work-related fatalities.

Most of us are familiar with the Farm Safety Partnership’s acronym SAFE– Slurry, Animals, Falls (from height) and Equipment, which highlights the four main causes of fatalities on farms. But all too often we forget about our state of mind and the role it plays in farming safely.

We farmers are good at maintaining machinery and caring for our animals. We are often more acquainted with our local vet than our GP, which speaks volumes about our perception of our overall health and wellbeing.

There is no doubt we underestimate how serious the consequences of poor mental health can be and how it can affect our ability to farm safely and productively. The symptoms of stress can include disturbed sleep, fatigue and poor concentration. If we’ve a lot going on such as an upcoming TB test, overdue feed and vet bills, machinery needing repaired or a farm inspection, this can all play on our mind and in turn we may not be focusing on the job at hand and so we’re at increased risk of an accident or injury. This is why it is vital to look after our wellbeing because if the mind is not looked after then it is easy to become complacent, distracted and less aware of the dangers around us.

Challenges and problems outside our control are an ongoing part of farming and continuing uncertainty in the sector is having an adverse impact on our well-being. As part of my Nuffield Scholarship in 2017 I explored and identified ways in which farmers and farm families can build resilience and protect themselves and their businesses in challenging times. My report recommends several ways in which we can do this; firstly, we need a life-farm balance. It can be hard to get a day off farm, let alone a week’s holiday but it is important to get away from the business. Even try to get away for an hour to grab lunch or a coffee in the local town. Secondly, we need to establish social connections by getting involved with others whether that be by attending a local farmers’ meeting or having friends or family over for a takeaway meal. Lastly, we need to look after our mental health by recognising when we’re not coping and we must seek help whether that be from our GP or a support organisation such as Rural Support.

The freephone helpline number is 0800 138 1678 and is available 9am-9pm, Monday to Friday (voicemail and support options available at all other times). All calls are confidential.

One farmer who I had the pleasure of meeting during my travels was New Zealander, Doug Avery AKA ‘The Resilient Farmer.’ Doug faced numerous challenges over the years, including increasing debt, prolonged drought and earthquakes, all of which led him to experience mental health issues. However, despite this the farm’s income increased tenfold and is now one of the top performing beef and sheep enterprises in New Zealand.

This autumn, Rural Support in partnership with the Farming Community Network (FCN) have organised a series of talks at venues in Northern Ireland, England and Wales. Doug will be sharing details of his experiences and the journey to where he is now with the aim of inspiring members of the farming community who want to change their approach to their business and their personal life.

Tickets for the ‘Shift Happens – An Audience with the Resilient Farmer’ tour will cost £10 per person and will include a light supper for all attendees. Further information about the tour, including venues and details of how to book tickets, can be found at

Dates and venues for the Northern Ireland segment of the tour are as follows:

Monday 7th October, Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown

Tuesday 8th October, Mourne Country Hotel, Newry

Wednesday 9th October, Killyhevlin Hotel, Enniskillen

Thursday 10th October, Tullyglass Hotel, Ballymena

All events start with a light supper, served at 7pm.