Dealing with farming’s mental health issues head on

BBC’s Strictly winner, actor Kelvin Fletcher, who last year bought a 120-acre farm is supporting the 2022 Mind Your Head campaign. He said: 'Before joining farming, I had no idea the community was so heavily impacted by bad mental health. If one person reads about Mind Your Head and decides to reach out or to check in on a loved one, that’s a step in the right direction. Please, be that person and start the conversation. You never know how much it could mean to someone struggling silently.'

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2020 and 2021 proved incredibly challenging for the UK’s farming industry.

There were extreme weather conditions, poor harvests, supply chain shortages and a global pandemic to contend with but, through it all, farming endured as it always does. Over the past two years, the UK’s farmers have been recognised as key workers.

Their hard work puts food on our plates, produced to some of the highest standards in the world, and their careful stewardship knits together the environmental and social fabric of our iconic landscape.

The UK’s farmers are a remarkable breed; adaptable, resilient and incredibly hardworking but, the commitment of our farmers comes at a price.

In an industry that continues to have the poorest safety record of any occupation in the UK, making sure we are all looking after our physical and mental wellbeing has never been more relevant.

So, from February 14-18 2022, leading farm safety charity, the Farm Safety Foundation (also known as Yellow Wellies) is launching its fifth annual Mind Your Head campaign to illustrate actions being taken to break down mental health barriers in farming.

With 92 per cent of farmers under the age of 40 suggesting poor mental health is the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today (an increase from 82 per cent in 2018).

In an industry where 34 farm workers lost their lives in fatal farm incidents in 2020/2021, there were a total of 44 suicides registered in England and Wales by those working in the farming and agricultural industry in 2020 according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). Earlier ONS figures showed that 123 agricultural workers across Britain, including 21 in Scotland, took their lives in 2019.

Whether or not the number of suicides has increased as a result of the pandemic is a matter for experts and should not be speculated on.

According to Professor Louis Appleby, Professor of Psychiatry, University of Manchester and chair of the national advisory group on suicide prevention at the Department of Health and Social Care: ‘Figures like these are important in understanding the tragedy of suicide.

‘They are not dry data, they are real lives lost, real families devastated. No figure, whether high or low, is acceptable. We need to beware of alarming claims and predictions without evidence – misleading and potentially harmful to those in the industry who are already struggling.’

Stephanie Berkeley, manager of the Farm Safety Foundation said: ‘As an industry, I think it is time we deal with the issue of poor mental health head on. We need to talk about our feelings and let everyone living and working in farming know that it’s completely ok to have feelings, good and bad, but it’s also important to let them out.

‘Life isn’t always as it seems, we don’t post on social media about the days that we wished we didn’t get out of bed or the days we didn’t feel like it. Most people feel the pressure to keep up with everyone’s ‘perfect’ life.

‘My father always advised me to never judge anyone unless you walked in their shoes, these are words that I live by, as it is important to know what is really going on behind the smile, or even their grumpy demeanour. Many living and working in rural communities are suffering and doing so in silence.

‘As an industry, it’s time to ease the pressure, stop expecting people to be perfect and start talking openly about feelings with people you trust.’

The recent R.A.B.I Big Farming Survey revealed that 36 per cent of the farming community in the UK are ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’ depressed and sadly, the stigma around mental health often prevents those who need help from seeking it.

So, this week key farming organisations from five countries will join forces to support the Foundation’s Mind Your Head campaign and try to dispel the myths and tackle the stigma around poor mental health in the industry and highlight the wealth of support available to those living and working in farming.