Stress is an inescapable
fact of life for everyone
involved in farming, and the
challenge is to prevent it
causing mental health
problems. Robert Davies
found signs of success at
a seminar in Wales
THERE was agreement that climate, animal diseases and political interference prevented farming ever being the idyllic way of life some claimed. What had changed was that incomes had fallen so low that many farm businesses were in jeopardy, and bureaucracy had become intolerable.
Delegates suggested that public health scares and complaints by environmentalists made farmers feel undervalued, so it was hardly surprising that suicides and clinical depression were on the increase.
And there was ample evidence that the strain of trying to keep farming businesses going, perhaps by borrowing more, claiming social security benefits or, possibly, by a wife going out to work, were causing more marriages to fail.
It was clear that all the experts attending the meeting organised by Vale of Clwyd Mind Association in St Asaph were aware of the causes and consequences of increased rural stress, and the urgent need to provide skilled help.
Organiser Jane Jones, a farmers wife who works as the Associations rural development officer, acknowledged that health care professionals could do little to tackle the underlying economic causes of stress. But she was upbeat about tackling stress before it resulted in clinical disease.
"We have to feel very positive about how much help is now on offer from a host of agencies," she said.
"I accept that we have to overcome the ingrained reluctance of farmers to seek assistance because of the stigma still attached to stress related problems, but at least it is there if they can be persuaded to access it.
"It is also clear that younger farmers are much more open about their problems, and much more ready to accept advice and professional counselling."
The Rev Nick Read, director of the Stoneleigh-based Rural Stress Network, was encouraged by the way ministry officials, veterinary surgeons and even commercial representatives were using a newly-established protocol to pass on concerns about the mental state of farmers they met.
"Organisations like RSN, the Samaritans and Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution are handling more calls, and believe that farmers are finding it more acceptable to say they need help.
"Statutory services are asking for advice about the assistance available and for leaflets. In some cases farmers just need business advice that they do not have the money to pay for," he said.
The Rev Read and other speakers felt it was important that farming families understood the range of assistance available, and how they could tap into sources that met their personal needs.
General practitioner Dermot Norton, who practices in the Cerrigydrudion area, said the plethora of aid agencies and telephone hotlines needed to be better publicised, explained and co-ordinated.
Farmers and their families were often confused and contacted an agency that was familiar, like the Samaritans, rather than one that specialised in providing help targeted at rural problems.
"We need to raise awareness about the possible medical consequences of stress. Better access to the help that is available would reduce the number of farmers who ended up consulting people like me."
Working groups operating during the day called for more understanding from politicians and bureaucrats, localised stress reduction campaigns and improved mental health information packages for schools, colleges and YFCs. There was support too for a network of rural mental health nurse practitioners.
Delegates approved of organisations working more closely together to make the most cost-effective use of limited resources to help rural communities.