Why talking about suicide can prevent it

The farming industry carries a lot of physical risk, so it’s easy to spot the visible dangers to life and limb. But how do we address the mental health risks faced by isolated workers working long, punishing hours? Gavin Scarr-Hall, health and safety director at Peninsula, offers advice.

Recent studies have shown that 92% of UK farmers under 40 say mental ill-health is the biggest hidden problem in the industry. Between 2021 and 2022, there were 22 workplace fatalities and 34 suicides amongst farm workers.

So, why are farmers at higher risk from mental ill-health than other professions?

Farm stressors

There is no 9–5 in farming. For many farmers, their place of work is also their home, making it difficult to maintain a work/life balance. Throw in the long hours – with most working closer to 65 hours per week than the traditional 37 hours of other industries – and it’s easy to see how problems arise.

When your work is also your home, it can be difficult to switch off. This affects sleep and means family life can suffer. The demands of the job mean many farmers suffer from ongoing injury or poor physical health.

Income can vary significantly from year to year, based on factors out of anyone’s control, adding additional layers of financial anxiety.        

The pressure to support families is immense, and while mental health affects both men and women alike, the rate of suicide is significantly higher amongst men. What some call the ‘stiff upper lip’ has a lot to answer for when it comes to the reluctance many men feel opening up about their feelings.  

Contextual stressors

Fluctuations in political policy and societal pressures also bring additional, unique challenges for farmers. Brexit has not made things easy for an industry already dominated by paperwork and bureaucracy. And the changing climate makes rural life unpredictable, and is destructive to crops and livestock.

Many farms have been passed down through families over many generations, so the prospect of failing can weigh heavy on farmers’ shoulders. When all these blockers combine, it’s no wonder that the industry has seen such a deterioration in mental health and worrying increase in the number of suicides.

Barriers to support

Farming is a unique industry. While other occupations may have a support network to rely on or offer training to raise awareness and help spot early signs that someone may be struggling mentally, the rural and isolated nature of farming makes this harder.

A rigid patriarchal ‘self-reliance’ culture can cast a stigma or make it harder for someone to express a need for help.

Many farmers don’t feel they can trust the government, or feel they have the luxury of anonymity when speaking to a doctor about their mental health. Farmers work in close-knit communities where people know each other’s business. So it can be harder to admit you have a problem or are struggling if you worry about facing shame or becoming the subject of village gossip.

Our sister company Health Assured, the UK and Ireland’s leading EAP provider, has put together some tips for proactive steps people can take to look after their mental wellbeing.

  • Make time to take breaks – having a break gives your mind and body space to rest, which in turn increases productivity. Even if you can’t take full days off, then make sure to actively build break times into your day to switch off, even if just to enjoy your lunch
  • Be kind to yourself – we can be our own worst enemies. ‘Be kind’ has become something of a buzz word recently, with a focus on thinking about the ways in which your words impact others. But thinking and speaking kindly to yourself as well can make a significant difference, bringing huge benefits mentally
  • Plan hobbies away from the farm – getting away from the farm and doing something you enjoy is crucial to maintaining good mental health and a positive work/life balance. Make friendship groups and establish hobbies outside of your work and home environment to give you something to look forward to
  • Prioritise sleep – not getting enough sleep negatively affects the way we regulate our emotions, so it’s extremely important to prioritise sleep schedules. Set yourself a bedtime routine, allowing yourself to comfortably wind down, ready for some much-needed rest
  • Talk to someone – talking things through is the best way to alleviate stress and anxiety. Counsellors offer different perspectives, provide comfort and security and ways of managing your specific mental health triggers. There are various specialist farming organisations that are happy to talk things through – not every call will be from someone in crisis, sometimes it may just be someone having a bad day and wanting a chat. But it’s important to get in touch before things reach a ‘crisis’ point. Below is a list of some of the options:
  • Farming Community Network helpline: 0300 011 1999/ help@fcn.org.uk
  • Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution helpline: 0800 188 4444
  • The DPJ Foundation: Call: 0800 587 4262 Text: 07984 169652
  • Forage Aid helpline: 01926 620135
  • Addington Fund: 01926 620135

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