Animal welfare and farmer well-being go hand in hand

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2021, beef, sheep and poultry farmer, Ian Alderson from South Shropshire, and David Anderson from the VetPartners Wellbeing Group discuss the importance of taking care not just of your livestock but also prioritising your own physical and mental health.

Having been hospitalised just before lambing with kidney stones, ‘Disease? Not On My Farm!’ ambassador, Ian (pictured) was out of action for a while. Any unforeseen time off, even for a short period of time, can negatively impact the smooth running of the farm. This was especially troubling when other issues in the Alderson household added extra layers of pressure.

The tipping point

“To be honest, it’s not been a great year for my family’s health. Not only was I taken ill but my Dad has also been in and out of hospital and my Mum had been waiting for a hip x-ray. There have been lots of additional stresses on top of the pandemic that have taken their toll. It was tricky managing everything, especially when you’re tired. It has been very difficult,” Ian explains.

“Sometimes, you’ve just got to concentrate on your own mental health. Especially when we’ve all been challenged by having far less social interaction,” he continues.

Staying on the right track

Ian believes it’s important to have your own coping strategies in place to break the tedium of working in isolation. These can be any measures that give you some breathing space and help to maintain a positive frame of mind. For Ian, this means indulging his passion for music.

“We all have our own ways of getting through difficult periods. My own personal relaxation is listening to music. It helps to take my mind off the monotony and the long hours. It really helped me to deal with the issues that I’ve experienced this year.”

 Preventative-led solutions

The lack of opportunities for face-to-face interaction either socially or in a professional capacity during the past twelve months has also had its consequences.

“Given the opportunity, most farmers will chat endlessly about the health of their animals. However, without access to marts, our regular interaction has been far less than it would normally be. This situation has made it even more difficult to talk about the negative impacts of personal issues such as mental health.

“In my experience, peer to peer collaboration can be really beneficial in its own right. As part of the ‘Disease? Not On My Farm!’ initiative, the ambassadors used to have regular farm visits. Thankfully, these roadshows have continued online during lockdown,” says Ian. “We meet virtually to discuss our preventative health protocols regarding livestock and it’s good to see familiar faces and hear how everyone is doing.”

A problem shared is a problem halved

Opening up about our worries and regularly checking in with others can make a significant difference. David Anderson, a vet from Westpoint Farm Vets, stresses the importance of asking people whether they are ok.

“Sometimes the vet may be the only person a farmer sees that day,” David says. “I try to keep an eye out for changes in a client’s character, like if they seem withdrawn or are struggling to make decisions. I make a conscious effort to ask how they’re feeling, asking twice if necessary. Often it is only after the second time of asking the question when someone who is struggling feels comfortable enough to give an honest answer.

“It can be so hard to take the first step and reach out for help, so it’s important to look out for one another.”

Industry support on hand

Thankfully, the industry is supported by several charities that are working to address poor mental health in farming, such as the Farm Safety Foundation’s annual Mind Your Head campaign. For practical, immediate support, RABI has recently launched an online wellbeing platform that provides free, anonymous access to resources and counselling at rabi.org.uk/kooth.

As Ian concludes; “If we don’t look after ourselves, it makes it much harder to care for our animals. And that’s a situation that none of us want to face. It’s important to remember that you are your farm’s biggest asset.”

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