Researchers at Queens University are undertaking a three year study to explore the issues around farmers in Northern Ireland and sexuality.
They were approached by the Northern Trust after worker Claire Galloway came in contact with a 29-year-old farmer called ‘George’ whose story was featured on Sunday night’s BBC Countryfile.
George, not his real name, said being gay was not something that he could tell his parents.
He added: “I was raised to believe that one day I would find a girl and get married and carry on farming our family land.
“Suicide is something I have had dwelling in my innermost thoughts. It was a potential way out. I felt I had nobody to talk to so I went to the clinic out of desperation,” he told Countryfile.
That visit changed everything for George and for other people in his situation.
During his visit George spoke to Claire Galloway from the Northern Trust.
She explained: “I think probably it was the personal issues that he was living with at home and the impact it was having on his mental health.
“I am always a believer that if we can’t support the clients coming in then there needs to be a change in our services. It’s up to us to look at research and how we are going to modernise our services in the future to meet some of these needs,” she added.
Suicide rates for farmers are amongst the highest of any occupation - around 50 farmers take their own lives every year with pressures ranging from low market prices, to poor harvests and even the weather.
One in four gay or bisexual men have attempted suicide at some point in their lives. The combined pressures of being a gay farmer in a small community can lead to desperate measures.
To get a better understanding of the issues the Northern Trust has turned to academics at Queens University in Belfast.
Dr Kieran Mulholland is a psychiatrist who works with farmers and is part of the team that has just been called together to undertake the three year study.
He explained: “We are very aware that farmers are often living in isolation and they have an awful lot of pressure in life, financially. They are very prone to hopelessness and very prone to depression which can lead to suicide.
“We are aware that gay men are also prone to depression and suicide and it seems reasonable to assume that a gay isolated farmer is even more at risk.
“We are attempting to explore this in a project over three years - looking at gay farmers who are struggling with their sexuality or struggling to come out in Northern Ireland society.
“We would hope that this investigation over a period of time will improve services and access to services which will ultimately save lives,” Dr Mulholland added.
Keith Ineson, a retired agricultural chaplain now living in Co Down, runs the only UK helpline for gay farmers. He knows the burden of expectation within families where sons are expected to marry and have children to continue to work the family farm.
“A lot of folk did exactly that but then when they get into their 50s they find out that it didn’t sort it all out. Those who ring the helpline are in their 50s very often and one thing that comes out a lot is that they are frightened of hurting their wives,” he said.
He urges any one who might be struggling with their sexuality to talk to someone.
“The fact that you have kept it to yourself all these years is not doing you any good. Whether you decide in the end to come out that is entirely up to yourself , but talk to somebody. Which is why the helpline is there, so that they have got somebody to talk to in total confidentiality, non judgemental and they can say exactly what they want.”
Keith can be contacted on 07837 931894 or go to www.gayfarmer.co.uk