Rural Support hosts Resilient Farmers’ Conference

Jude McCann, CEO Rural Support pictured with Teresa McGarvey (PHA) & Martin Malone (NFU Mutual). PHA & NFU Mutual kindly sponsored the event.

Rural Support recently hosted an important conference exploring the theme of farmers’ health and building resilience at CAFRE Greenmount, Antrim. The event was in partnership with Embrace FARM (ROI) and Farm Safety Foundation (UK) as well as being kindly sponsored by the Public Health Agency and NFU Mutual.

Approximately 160 individuals attended the conference with representatives from the agricultural industry, government agencies and departments, private sector, health and community organisations present.

The conference had a number of speakers who all delivered a key message that farmers’ health and resilience is the responsibility of everyone including government, statutory agencies and key stakeholders within the agricultural industry. The conference provided the opportunity for discussion and identification of opportunities and actions which could be taken forward across all sectors to safeguard farmers’ mental health and overall wellbeing.

Opening remarks at the conference were made by Paul Donnelly, DAERA, as well as Ivor Ferguson, Ulster Farmers Union. Both individuals noted that looking after the health and well-being of farmers is undoubtedly a challenging task and that a conference of this nature allows us all to examine current and emerging issues affecting the health and well-being of the farming population. They also highlighted the importance of building resilience to address these issues is both timely and significant.

Jude McCann, Chief Executive Rural Support stipulated that farmers’ health and wellbeing is everyone’s business and that we need to act upon it now. He reaffirmed this by disclosing to the audience that recent figures show that one farmer a week in the UK dies as a result of suicide. He continued to say that his recent Nuffield Scholar travels paved the way for this conference as he found in other countries such as New Zealand; that famers also experience ill mental health, but they have a model in place to help guide and support the farming community in such troublesome times. Jude finalised his report by asking the audience to make a pledge and help make a difference to this community today.

The experiences of farmers from Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and mainland UK were openly discussed onstage during ‘Fireside Chats’ throughout the day. The first ‘Fireside Chat’ gave a medical perspective from two health officials on what they feel are the barriers from individuals seeking help about their mental health issues. “Farmers are great at seeking help when it comes to the welfare of their animals, but not their own. They are a proud community and therefore feel it’s a sign of weakness and not the norm. This needs to change and we as a society need to showcase its ok not to be ok”, said Rebecca Orr, trainee GP.

The following ‘Fireside Chats’ were from a farmers perspective and involved not only farmers but a Rural Support Business Mentor. Here speakers told of their personal struggles with mental ill health, the impact and devastation caused as a result of a farm accident, the stresses of farming and how the very nature of farming itself has changed. The need to not only address mental health and wellbeing issues but also the need to address practical issues such as making a Will, appointing a Power of Attorney, having up to date accounts and planning ahead was also emphasised. The panel felt that communication between members of the farm family is key and every member has a responsibility to know what is happening and to share any burdens and stress that are causes of concern.

Byran Monson from the Health & Safety Executive NI explained to the attendees how a farm accident can cause mental health issues for both the farmer and the farm family and how they need to become more resilient to cope with this crisis. Such devastating consequences can cause relationship breakdowns, financial and legal issues as well as depression and anxiety. He continued to say that a farm is a business and that it needs to have several barriers in place to safeguard itself and everyone involved. However, there are several pressures upon a farmer and the farm business in order to make it sustainable and generate a significant income such as the Government, industry, family and other businesses. He urged attendees to look at not only the business but the famer as well and reminded us all that there is a person behind it all and that they are trying to survive and keep their head above water.

Keynote speaker for the event was Ian Marshall, Irish Senator and former UFU President. Ian spoke of the pressure to pass on the farm business, to the next generation, in a better condition in which they had received it. Ian reiterated the idea of needing to talk not only about our successes but also our failings. Farmers are reluctant to talk about their concerns, there is still very much a stigma attached to mental health and we have inherited a legacy of not talking about our problems. Ian touched on the role of women within the family farm, a role which he feels should not be overlooked. He commented that very often the woman is the counsellor and confidant to the farmer. The woman, whether that be a wife, daughter, sister or aunt is very often the glue which holds the farm family together. Ian urged that upcoming farmers should be better equipped to accept and deal with failings, to be able to talk more openly about their mental health and encouraged the industry, government and farmers to work together.

Stephanie Berkeley, Farm Safety Foundation urged attendees to take a stand for the farming community and to use their voice and stature to make a difference as farmers’ mental health and wellbeing is everyone’s business. She encouraged the audience to make a pledge and take the information discussed back to their own organisations and communities so that something can be done as its everyone’s responsibility.

Teresa McGarvey, Public Health Agency, emphasised the importance of working collaboratively, of seeking help early and to normalise mental health. She also spoke of the need to equip farmers with skills and coping strategies so that they can become more resilient in overcoming problems.

The conference was rounded off on a high note by the Farmers Choir who originally came together to support each other through ill health issues and found that music was a great way to deal with mental health issues and overall wellbeing.