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Ewe are not alone: The campaigners flocking to tackle farmers’ mental illness

Brexit, climate change and isolation are behind a mental health crisis on UK farms. But, as Nick Drainey finds, support groups are reaching out across the farm gate

Farmer mental health

Farmers are calling for Universal Basic Income.

The life of a farmer may seem idyllic for those who face chugging through a daily commute into a city office. Green space, fresh air, working with animals – what could be better? But the list of pressures is long, and growing: financial issues (borrowing money and receiving poor returns on capital), increased regulation, irregular weather patterns, animal diseases, family expectations, isolation, lack of respite. The results of these mounting stresses can be stark. Recent statistics showed that one farmer a week takes their own life.

New campaigns across the UK aim to provide support which could turn this worrying trend around.

Why it’s good to talk about mental health

The Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs has started a campaign, Are Ewe Okay?, targeting farmers aged 14 to 30. “The main thing for that audience is isolation,” says campaign manager Joanna Foubister, who grew up on her parents’ farm on Orkney. “A lot of people are working independently, and in the culture of agriculture and rural communities there is a stigma that it is weak to talk about your feelings, you bottle up your emotion. I think that is deep-rooted within the culture.

“Farmers generally don’t 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 and you have to go with the seasons, meaning at some times of the year it is very, very busy.”

The same issues are felt keenly around Britain, and an increasing number of campaigns and support bodies are looking to offer help. In Norfolk and Suffolk the YANA (You Are Not Alone) Project is speaking directly to people in the farming communities experiencing mental health problems. A helpline has been set up for anyone who needs support, or thinks they know someone who might. YANA can also direct farmers towards counselling, and even help to fund it. Similarly, The Farming Community Network runs a confidential helpline where those in the agricultural industry can discuss stress, depression, isolation, as well as addiction or illness, family or financial problems.

According to Foubister, uncertainty over Brexit is exacerbating the issue of mental ill-health, and she anticipates this will grow worse. “We are so dependent on so many factors politically and globally within the industry,” she says. “And there is the weather which is undoubtedly getting more and more difficult to predict.”

Jenna-Bannatyne-farmer
Jenna Bannatyne sought help after a 'multitude of problems' affected her mental health

Jenna Ballantyne, 31, farms in South Lanarkshire. “Admitting to yourself you are ill with depression is the first hurdle,” she says. “The second is seeking the help and guidance you require – and sooner rather than later. The third is facing everyone else.”

What caused her problems? “I put it down to a multitude of things,” she says. “Relationship break-up, peer pressure, but mainly a lack of support from individuals who seemed to think I was (and I still am not) a robot.

“Just because you’re not showing you are ill on the outside, doesn’t mean you aren’t ill on the inside. But the pain on the inside is hard to heal and a very long process – it’s not just an overnight illness.”

Liam McCann farmer mental health
Liam-McCann-farmer
Liam McCann switched to Land-based Engineering after mental illness affected his life and work

Liam McCann, 25, from Fife was diagnosed with depression in June 2016. It became so severe that he attempted suicide. “I wish I could get up and it would go away,” he says. “Like I could take a pill and it would feel better, like a sore head. It doesn’t. It takes careful nurturing and delicate tactics to beat this horrible illness. I know it is not easy for them to deal with someone with a mental illness. I struggle to understand it myself.”

His work was affected, so he changed direction, moving from farm work to studying Land-Based Engineering and has found a strategy for coping.

“I will fight it with my passion, beat it with my hobbies and deal with it. It is half the battle keeping my mind occupied, but I do so with what I love.”

Jenna has advice too – starting with taking the time to talk. “My relationship with my parents is the strongest it has ever been,” she says. “There are people and groups out there who are there to help – all you have to do is seek the help you need – starting with your doctor.”

For more on mental health, check out this week’s special Time to Talk Big Issue, including an exploration of PTSD with Journey’s End actor Sam Claflin and Paul English’s look at the homelessness and mental health scandal.

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