As reported on Countryfile, the #tractorselfie4rob campaign saw Twitter users across the world take selfies with tractors to draw attention to the prevalence of mental illness among farmers, one of which kills themselves each week – on average – in the UK alone. In France, a farmer dies an average of every two days.
Why are farmers statistically so likely to commit suicide?
Farming is a high-pressure, 24/7 occupation with a lack of days off compared to almost all other professions, and farmers face increasingly difficult market pressures, the risk of disease infecting livestock and the potential of flooding to completely decimate livelihoods.
Most farmers are male, and men, who less commonly discuss personal problems, are statistically more likely to kill themselves than women. Psychiatrist Dr David Middleton says not seeking support when stress first emerges can lead to the situation becoming much more serious, and can have fatal consequences. Farmers spend long hours working alone with little human contact, which can allow mental health problems and suicidal thoughts to fester. It is common for farmers to do entire days without seeing anyone, and social isolation can lead to a lack of support or a lack of other people noticing mental illness symptoms.
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. And farmers are more likely to have easy access to lethal equipment.
What’s the most common mental illness?
The most common mental health problem is depression, which one in five members of the public will experience at some point during their lives, and more than 20 per cent of farmers will suffer from. There are major differences between feeling low and “clinical” depression. When the latter develops, the person can be affected most of the time, frequently for a number of weeks or months. Symptoms can include tiredness, restlessness, low mood, falling energy levels, poor concentration, a lack of interest in things that would normally give pleasure and suicidal thoughts. Physical symptoms such as aches or pains may also occur.
Nonetheless, it 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.
Where can farmers turn for help?
Mental health support is normally more concentrated in areas of high population and spread thinly in rural areas. Three years ago, the coalition government created an initiative that saw £1.5 milion invested into researching a national suicide prevention strategy, particularly suicide among the farming community. Many agree that more needs to be done, but there are a number of organisations across the country devoted to supporting the farming community and tackling mental health problems. These include:
Papyrus, the mental health charity which the selfie campaign raised money for.
The Farming Community Network (formerly Farming Crisis Network, before a name change to “dispel the myth they can only offer help at times of crisis”), which answers calls in person between 7am and 11pm.
Young Minds, the UK’s leading charity committed to improving the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children and young people.
The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (R.A.B.I.), which helps farmers and farmworkers of any age and has a contact number staffed during office hours.
Lincolnshire Rural Support Network, launched following a donation by the daughter of farmer who killed himself. Featured in the latest episode of Countryfile, it funds health check-ups in livestock markets, which have been used to spot early signs of stress.
A full list of organisations is available on the BBC’s Actionline website.