When it comes to dedication to their work, farmers undoubtedly come at the top of the list, but this can be to the detriment of their own health and well-being.
Farmers are often contending with financial pressures, business and family issues, plus rural isolation, so perhaps it’s no surprise that looking after their own health all too often falls to the bottom of the pile.
But one Lincolnshire charity is offering a vital lifeline by holding a drop-in clinic, where anyone involved in agriculture or horticulture can speak to a nurse about health-related concerns or get routine medical checks carried out on the spot – all without an appointment.
Since the Lincolnshire Rural Support Network (LRSN) launched its fortnightly sessions at Spalding Auction last May, more than 70 people have sought help and advice from nurse Heather Dawes.
“For farmers, making medical appointments comes low down on the list of priorities. It’s not easy for agricultural workers to get medical appointments that are convenient,” explains Heather, who has been running similar drop-in sessions at Louth and Newark cattle markets.
“It’s often difficult to access a GP surgery to fit in with their work programme, but they can come in here, in their work gear or scruffs, so it’s a lot more convenient as we’re taking the service to their workplace.
“Most people come and have their blood pressure checked because they’ve not had it done for a long time, but once they’ve had that looked at, it seems to open up other doors.
“They tell me there’s a history of high cholesterol in the family, so they ought to get that checked and then other things, too,” she adds.
As well as routine blood pressure and blood sugar levels tests, Heather also carries out checks for cholesterol, height, weight and BMI, as well as ear and eye examinations.
The faces behind a community lifeline
The Lincolnshire Rural Support Network is a charity. Most of its work is undertaken by more than 30 volunteers from an agricultural background.
Completely confidential, its service is self-funded through grants, legacies, sponsorship and donations.
Every year it supports more than 100 farming and rural families with problems ranging from debt to tenancy, single farm payment to health issues.
Visit www.lrsn.co.ukor call 0845 123 2306. Contact Spalding Auction on 01775 723 333.
She’s also on hand at the horticultural auction venue to provide advice for anyone who wants to stop smoking and can also discuss mental health issues during the sessions.
“It’s like having a full-body MoT,” she says. “We also seem to get people coming in with orthopaedic issues, too – like bad shoulders, knees and hips, which are all due to manual work.
“The majority of people in the farming industry are working really hard until they reach 65 – they don’t retire like many others.
“They carry on working, working and working until they drop – that’s why we’re seeing these issues.
“Surprisingly though, we’re seeing hardly any smokers. We’ve done very little work in this area, which is positive, although we do see quite a few drinkers.
“It seems to come out that a few people are having a few too many units of alcohol, but we can give advice on cutting this back and refer them to other services.”
When Heather picks up undiagnosed health problems she can provide evidence for patients to take to their own practitioner, too.
“It’s like with the blood-pressure checks,” she explains. “Doctors need several readings before they can take action, and rather than someone having to make numerous appointments to go to the surgery to get it checked, they can just come back to me and then they have to make only one appointment to see their GP.”
Heather’s Spalding clinic, funded through the Mental Illness Prevention Fund, costs about £10,000 a year to run and has been set up to operate like a traditional practice, where patients see the same person each time and get to build up a good relationship with them.
The clinic isn’t unique – the charity runs similar drop-ins at more northerly locations, where it also offers other advice on debt management, practical help, mediation, advocacy and more.
“We cannot claim copyright on this idea – Bakewell Livestock Market has been doing it for some time,” added LRSN project manager Alison Twiddy. “Our locations in Newark and Louth were very much focused on livestock and mixed farming, rather than those in the arable and horticulture sector, and they also focused on the north and middle of the county more.
“Spalding Auction invited us to attend, and has played a big part in making it such a success so far, as have the local businesses who have supported us,” she added.
“Farmers are not really very good at talking about stress and mental illness, but they are certainly not exempt from it.
“Farming has a very high rate of suicide, and if farmers are physically ill, that impacts on their emotional well-being and can put them under a considerable amount of stress.
“We are trying to look after them emotionally as well as physically,” she adds.
More on farm crisis support.