Mental illness in British farming
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than one agricultural worker a week in the UK dies by suicide.
An occupation which faces harsh weather and shrinking profit margins, 25% of farming families in the UK live below the poverty line. Market fluctuations, poor harvests and livestock disease all contribute to stress, but concerns over policies, administration and legislation can also take their toll.
A study by the British Medical Journal said that witnessing so much death among livestock could give farmers a fatalistic view of their lives, also pointing out that farmers have easier access to guns, poisons and other means of committing suicide.
A US report by researchers at the National Institutes of Health also suggests that pesticides, which farmers breathe in and absorb through their skin while they’re applied to crops, have neurological effects which can dramatically increase the likelihood of depression.
Farming is often perceived as an innately conservative culture, and for many a stigma is still attached to mental health issues, resulting in many being less likely to find help. The majority of farmers are men, who are statistically less likely to speak out about personal issues, and more likely to commit suicide than women.
Long working hours are often spent alone, with entire days spent without human contact. Social isolation allows depression and negative thoughts to fester, and not seeing people regularly simply lowers the chance of someone spotting symptoms of mental illness.
Levels of depression in the industry are thought to be increasing and suicide rates in farmers are among the highest in any occupational group. Risk of suicide was also higher amongst those working in specific agricultural roles such as harvesting crops and rearing animals (almost twice the national average).
Mental health has seen greater coverage in the media recently, with increasing awareness in the public of the importance of prioritising your mental wellbeing. According to the charity Mind, approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year.
One in five members of the public will experience depression at some point during their lives, and more than 20% of farmers will suffer from the illness. Nonetheless, depression is very treatable, and most people will make a full recovery.
The challenge tends to be recognising when you or someone you know is ill and accessing the right support as soon as possible. This tends to particularly be a challenge in the farming community, where farmers often work alone and can be further away from support.
Farmers generally do not like going to the doctor, to find the time and even if they do go, the advice might be to get rest. It is very difficult to do that when you have a byre full of animals to feed. But farmers are being encouraged not to neglect any issues they may have, and to get help and advice.