Stark but not surprising’’ is how Professor Louise McHugh, UCD psychology professor, described the findings of her recent work alongside UCD colleagues Dr Tomas Russell, Anne Markey and Anne Stapleton.
With an increasing number of agricultural students focusing on mental health and wellbeing, and taking up psychology modules as elective classes, the agriculture and psychology schools teamed together to conduct the survey to review farmer mental health and wellbeing.
“We found that 23.4% of farmers that we surveyed were at risk of suicide. That meant that, in the two weeks before taking the survey, those farmers had urges or thoughts of suicide. We also saw that 55% were scoring on measures of depression, from moderate to severe, 44% were experiencing anxiety, while 37% were experiencing stress.’’
McHugh described it as a ‘crisis’ in agriculture at the moment, with the study further delving into the dominant stressors in farmers’ lives.
The study found that the three top stressors in surveyed farmers were the governmental policies designed to reduce climate change, outsiders not understanding agriculture and farmers and concern over farm future.
Many of the issues raised by farmers were “structural issues, issues where we can do things to involve farmers more in the policies that are being made”.
With farmers of this generation being the first to have to farm in line with climate change and the established targets, this is being seen as significantly affecting farmer mental health.
“One thing that we found when we looked at that, and coping strategies, which are particularly high in the farming community, is avoiding emotions; not wanting to talk about, or denying it.”
The main aim of the study is to raise awareness of the risk of suicide and the poor mental health that is currently being experienced by a large number of farmers.
“While it is stark, it is something that’s important to know that is happening and to seek out supports via your adviser in the first instance, or a counsellor,” stated McHugh.
Host farmer of the day, Oliver Dixon, is himself a psychotherapist and counsellor alongside running his organic suckler farm. “My advice would be to look after your emotional health and wellbeing. We have enough stress with weather and prices.”
Part of the reason for Oliver converting to organics back in 2013 was his “holistic and humanistic approach”, with this intertwined with the organic system now in place.
The poor view of farmers by those outside of agriculture, through social media and other outlets was highlighted by Oliver as a major burden on the farming community. “Look after what is inside your own gate, create a farming system that works for you.”
Oliver also noted the deterioration in mental health throughout the pandemic as isolation became an issue for rural dwellers.
“If there’s financial bother, don’t leave it hanging in the back of your head; get a financial adviser. If you’re not just feeling right, and you can’t talk to the people in the house, go talk to somebody.”
Oliver drew the comparison of farmers taking care of livestock to their own mental health.
“If you saw a cow sick out in the field, you wouldn’t say ‘I’ll see how she is next month’. You wouldn’t do that. You’d be out straight away and get it sorted. Have the same outlook on your own wellbeing.”
A farming enterprise from a sustainability point of view can be compared to a three-legged stool, with one leg being financial sustainability, one leg being environmental sustainability with the third being social sustainability. It is under the social leg that farmer mental health falls under.
Each leg plays a critical role; where one leg fails or breaks, the entire stool collapses.
Where there is a strain on one leg, eg financial strain due to poor market returns, then the other legs take on extra pressure and leave itself at risk of breaking down.
The key thing to focus on is to try to create balance among the three legs, to ensure that no area is taking on undue pressure, especially the social sustainability side.
Help and support is available to everyone, no matter who you are or what your issue is.
Friends and family, GPs, counsellors or even your agricultural adviser can all aid in directing you towards the correct service for you.
There are both public and private counsellors available, as well as a number of anonymous online/phone advisers: