Film highlights farming’s mental health crisis

Making Under the Soil has been a passion project for cameraman Archie Guinchard, who has fitted it around other work, despite not coming from a farming background.

Bedfordshire-based Archie had his first insight into agriculture on a meat advertising shoot and was struck by how many people mentioned the prevalence of mental health issues and suicide in the sector.

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Determined to highlight the issue, he has fitted the creation of this 60-minute film around other work. It features three farmers, plus contributions from the Farming Community Network (FCN) and the NFU.

The footage, edited by Archie’s partner, Alex Edwards, allows people to “share their own stories in their own way and their own words”.

“I fell into the world of agriculture by accident, but I soon realised there was a story there I wanted to tell and that needed to be told,” says Archie, who began his career working on car commercials.

“Farmers often distrust how TV represents them,” says Archie. “The most difficult part was the first year – just trying to get people to talk to me. Alex and I wanted to do this ourselves and not get anyone involved who might try to skew it or dramatise it.”

Contact FCN

To talk to a sympathetic person who understands farmers and rural life, call: 03000 111999. Calls will be answered in person from 7am-11pm every day of the year.

Matt, one of the farmers featured, explains the toll the “Beast from the East” storm took on his mental health in the winter of 2017-18 after losing so many sheep. He explains how he was “tortured” by the experience and experienced huge shame.

“I was miserable. I felt like I’d let myself down – and let everyone else down. I was rotten with hatred for the weather and the decisions I’d made, and full of ‘what ifs’. I felt like I just wanted to sit in a car and cry. I got to a point where I hated farming… and I’d only ever wanted to be a farmer.”

Eventually, Matt was able to talk to his partner and to another farmer – a process that helped hugely and got him back on track.

Another section of footage hears from a man who’d been on the brink of suicide. He explains: “I came to the conclusion that the best solution to the problem overall would be to just take myself out.”

Someone to talk to

The film also includes an interview with Emma Picton-Jones, who set up the DPJ Foundation to support people in the agricultural industry after her husband, Dan, took his own life.

“The main route to getting support from a counsellor is via your GP,” explains Emma. “But I know, as a farmer’s daughter, that farmers don’t go to their GPs very regularly, so there is no real line to getting support.

“So I wanted to put that support in the community and provide that counselling, because talking is the most effective way of dealing with poor mental health.”

According to FCN’s Mark Betson, more people are contacting the organisation in the face of challenges such as falling subsidy payments and poor weather. Any one such pressure could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, he says.

“Farming can be a very lonely industry. It’s very difficult when you’re in a close-knit community to turn to your neighbours. Especially when you feel there are issues you don’t want to discuss with them because you might feel you’re going to be embarrassed or that your reputation is going to be undone.

“There is a tradition and culture in farming of knuckling down and not talking about problems – basically of just farming your way through,” says Mark. “But sometimes that’s just bottling things up and not facing the issues that are really, really causing hurt.

“The sooner you ask for help, the better,” he adds. “If you make that call sooner, the sooner you will feel better for doing it.”

Complex pressures

NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts explains in the film that, while farming is a great industry to work in, it has complex pressures compared with other trades and professions.

“A lot of people go to work and have stresses at work, but then they get to go home. When we go home, we are going home to the office. The office is the farm and we live in that environment. You almost can’t escape from the office.”

The government can still do more to prioritise and fund mental health services in rural areas, believes Stuart.  

Filmmaker Archie hopes Under the Soil will be watched by a non-farming audience, as well as the rural community – so he’s planning to make it available to rent or buy on Amazon (for £1.49 or £2.49, respectively) from 4 January.

“Our aim originally was to get people to talk more about mental health,” he explains. “Back then, three years ago, no one in farming was having that conversation. Now, many more people are.

“People don’t understand the at times brutal reality of farming – which is what I wanted to convey. We wanted to show mental health issues can affect everyone, and our only financial aim is to cover our costs.

“I’ve met some of the nicest people I’ve ever come across in that world, and my whole perception of agriculture has been changed.The film isn’t an easy watch, but we hope it will make a small difference to a big problem.”