It’s the most wonderful time of the year. But is it really?

In the coming weeks, we’ll be celebrating all things festive in Irish Country Living. But for a moment, let’s get real because this season can be very challenging for people.

If your mental health and anxiety is fragile, then it can take a real bashing against the backdrop of twinkling lights and festive cheer. It’s a time for family and friends, but some people just want to hibernate. So many will slap on a smile to avoid any real conversations. Does this sound like you? Or someone you know? What is really going on behind that smile, or indeed, that farm gate?

Mental wellbeing

I was thinking about this during a conference that was jointly hosted by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Health last Monday. Entitled Cultivating Mental Wellbeing in Rural Ireland, it was opened by Minister of State with responsibility for Farm Safety, Martin Heydon TD who spoke about ‘On Feirm Ground’. This initiative equips professionals working with farmers, such as agricultural advisors, to spot the signs of someone struggling and to direct them to appropriate supports.

Initiatives like this are beneficial and certainly welcomed, but the key takeaway I took from the conference is that this conversation can’t just rest with professionals, we all need to take responsibility to reach out. But let’s be very honest, and this might make for uncomfortable reading, how many of us really want to have that conversation, to ask…how are you? Because, the answer we want to hear is, “Sure I’m grand.”

But what do you say if the answer is, “I’m struggling to cope.”

Many are familiar with supports available for people with mental health issues such as, the Samaritans and Pieta House. However, I wasn’t as familiar with the supports available to help people have that important conversation.

Training programme

For example, ‘LivingWork Starts’ run by the HSE is a 90-minute online interactive training programme that provides people with skills and knowledge to keep others safe from suicide.

It advises on areas such as: How do I open the conversation? What are the things I need to look out for? What should I do when I see a change in someone’s character? This guidance could be the difference between someone pushing you away or them opening up, engaging and seeking comfort in your confidence.

Another theme that weaved its way through the conference was the fact that while mental wellbeing is a societal issue, there are unique challenges in rural Ireland. Some speakers spoke about the traditional mindset that problems stay within the home, that you don’t reach out for help or avail of supports. After all, you ‘don’t want to give the neighbours anything to talk about’. How many times has that phrase been said around the kitchen table?


The other element was the focus on hard work on farms, nearly a celebration of ‘overwork’. Many grew up where the mindset of ‘isn’t he mighty, such a hard worker’ was the norm. It is hard to unlearn that but there’s a responsibility on parents and grandparents to try embrace a work life balance for the next generation.

With that in mind, and before Christmas arrives, it’s important to think about how we can reach out to family, friends and neighbours in our community. Yes, sometimes there may be big conversations to be had if someone close is in a dark place. On other occasions, simply stopping the car on the lane or having a small chat over the farm gate can make a big difference to someone’s day.