Supporting farmer wellbeing: addressing mental health in agriculture and horticulture
There is a growing concern over the high levels of stress, suicide and poor mental health within UK agriculture and horticulture. With my Nuffield Farming study I set out to explore how other countries were addressing this challenge in their farming communities. I visited countries in northern Europe as well as spending time in Australia and New Zealand. During my tour I met with a wide variety of stakeholders including academics from the research community, farmers and growers, rural professionals, health practitioners, faith-based agencies, advisers working in farm extension and farmer support services.
I found that approaches to address the issue were focussed in a number of key areas: conducting research and gathering meaningful, practical data; raising awareness of mental health amongst farming communities and those in the wider farming supply chain; developing support services and facilities appropriate to the farmer population; promotion of skills and strategies that support healthy behaviour. Running through all of these approaches was the importance of reducing stigma in order to normalise the issue so that choosing to seek help becomes easier. I found both Australia and New Zealand to be quite advanced in addressing rural and farmer mental health. Both countries were pioneering a number of innovative initiatives. Much of this had been achieved through a strategic approach which involved the support and collaboration of leading organisations within the agricultural sector.
My Nuffield Farming experience confirmed to me that issues of stress and mental health are a global problem in farming. Enabling farmers to openly and unashamedly share their own personal experiences of mental health difficulty can be a hugely effective way of engaging fellow farmers on the topic and eroding stigma. The issue of mental health in farming must be tackled both ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’. This involves both essential emergency-type response work as well as pro-active, preventative initiatives. There are now well understood, science-based strategies and behaviours known to help develop mental and emotional resilience. Several impressive initiatives I encountered during my study tour were concentrating on promoting such measures to farmers.
The findings from my study tour suggest the UK would benefit from more research and gathering of practical data on farmer mental health. This would help to further develop the evidence base in the area as well as help guide approaches to address the issue. There is scope for leading farming organisations to play a more active role in imparting pro-active, preventative messages. UK farming would also benefit from a dedicated, farmer-specific, educational initiative on wellbeing. This should be preventative-focussed and concentrate on promoting practical steps farmers can put in place to help them manage everyday stresses and pressures of farming. It is important to accelerate efforts to upskill frontline rural professionals in mental health awareness. Structured training can be used to develop their ability to spot warning signs of distress and improve their knowledge and confidence of how to respond appropriately. Facilitating farmer champions to develop their profile and publicly speak out about mental health will help to raise awareness of the issue, break down stigma and highlight available support services. Finally, it must be recognised that achieving cultural and behavioural change in mental health and wellbeing will take time. It requires long-term vision, investment and commitment.
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