Lessons from the lands down under

For today’s blog, we have invited Aarun Naik, Nuffield Scholar and qualified and practicing counsellor & psychotherapist to outline the challenges facing our farmers and the lessons we can learn from his study of how the industry in the Southern Hemisphere is prioritising and tackling the issue…

It seems like the topic of mental health has hardly been out of the national headlines during the last year. This reflects the widespread belief that mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing society today, with one in four people in the UK thought likely to experience a mental health difficulty in any given year .

As we have seen this week, this challenge is especially pertinent in farming circles. It’s widely acknowledged that agriculture and horticulture can be a highly stressful occupation. Long hours (often spent working alone), rural remoteness, the unpredictability of weather, downward price pressure, market volatility, masses of ‘red tape’ – these are just some of the many stressors facing farmers and growers. It’s one of the great ironies that whilst farmers and growers are renowned for the attention to they give to their crops, livestock and machinery, they do not have such a good track record when it comes to taking care of themselves and their own wellbeing. We regularly hear how farming is one of the most dangerous industries in the UK, with shocking fatality figures. Stress is thought to be a key factor in many accidents and illnesses and it is worrying to hear that England’s national suicide prevention strategy identifies farmers as one of the highest risk occupational groups. Farming charities too report an increased number of calls to their helplines, with levels of stress, depression and mental health difficulties on the rise.

How can we begin to change this? Through the award of Nuffield Farming Scholarship, made possible with the support of the John Oldacre Foundation, I was fortunate to travel to Australia and New Zealand where I received a glimpse of what may be possible. Farming communities in both nations are facing similar challenges when it comes to their mental health. However, I felt inspired to see the industry coming together to prioritise and tackle the issue of farmer wellbeing.

What particularly stood out is the way many farmers are rising to the challenge of improving their overall wellbeing. The agriculture community was working hard to encourage and promote a culture whereby farmers take ownership for their physical and mental health.

Building ‘resilience’ into farming systems has become a familiar concept in recent years. In Australia and New Zealand, it was noticeable how discussion has moved to exploring how producers can build their mental and emotional resilience. This does not have to be complicated stuff. A lot of it is simply about getting the basics right. For instance, a physically fit body is better able to withstand the effects of stress. A balanced lifestyle with frequent exercise, nutritious and regular meals and adequate sleep leaves one with energy and endurance to handle stress and manage the ups and downs of farming life. Farmers were responding to these headline messages with characteristic innovation and creativity. Across New Zealand, groups of farmers formed teams in order to exercise together to improve their health and fitness. I met groups of kiwifruit growers coached by ‘sleep doctors’ on how to have a productive night’s sleep. There were farmers learning practical breathing techniques to help them manage stress. Thousands of farmers had attended workshops on ‘healthy thinking’ to help them develop mental strength. I even came across a beef producer turned yoga instructor who had created his own form of ‘tractor yoga’ that he was teaching fellow farmers! These are just some examples of credible, evidence-informed techniques that I saw being used to help build resilience.

Perhaps due to this activity, Australia’s and New Zealand’s farming industries seemed to be speaking out more about wellbeing and mental health. This was typified for me when I attended a standard, run of the mill farming meeting to find that stress and wellbeing were all being openly spoken about alongside the more familiar technical talk of calving rates and pasture management. It’s only early days and there’s still a very long way to go. Changing attitudes and eroding stigma takes time. Yet I sensed the issue becoming more widely acknowledged. I believe that this is helping to legitimise feelings and communicate the message that it’s ok to talk about the issue and its ok to ask for help. This is helping to break down the taboo often associated with the topic and reinforces the message we cannot have a profitable and productive agriculture and horticulture industry without healthy and resilient people at its centre.

We may be some years behind Australia and New Zealand in this regard. However, my experiences gave me hope that if we prioritise some time to invest in our individual wellbeing, openly speak about our struggles and ask for help and support when needed we can start to achieve the same here in the UK.

Aarun’s Nuffield Farming Report, ‘Supporting Farmer Wellbeing: Addressing mental health in agriculture and horticulture’ can be downloaded HERE

If you, or someone you know has been affected by this issue, confidential help is available at Farming Help – Tel: 03000 111 999 (7.00am – 11.00pm)

stephanie_berkeley_zl4u2oa9Lessons from the lands down under

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