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Farmers open up about mental health struggles

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Farming is known for its challenging working conditions, including isolation and long hours and survey results from the RABI Big Farming Survey have highlighted that more than one farmer a week takes their own life.

Less visible, the survey pointed out, are high rates of mental ill-health and poor quality of life. As farmers have to manage their working conditions, many are also put under immense pressure as uncertainty about the future casts a long shadow over their farm yard.

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Farmer, Richard Walker

Opening up about the struggle of living with poor mental health are Glamorgan beef and sheep farming couple Richard Walker and Rachel Edwards-Walker. Together they run Flaxland Farm – a 120 acre beef and sheep holding just outside of Barry, Glamorgan.

Richard was diagnosed with depression and suicidal thoughts in 2001 and was placed on strong antidepressants. He also saw a psychiatrist, with treatment lasting for almost 2 years.

“I didn’t really know I needed help. You don’t know until you’re told that you do. In yourself you don’t recognise that you’re getting depressed. It needs someone outside to look in and say there’s something wrong with you, you’re not right. But the weird thing is that you are still the one who has to decide to go and get that help.You can’t be forced into it,” he recalls.

First to realise that Richard needed help was his mum.

“She knew there was something wrong and that I needed help. I suppose now it would be my wife to spot that. My mother noticed a change in my personality. Mood swings, less chatty. If you’re close to someone, in a relationship, husband, wife, mother, father, son whatever, you just know. Good friends can probably tell there is something wrong too,” says Richard.

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Figures released by the RABI point towards a problem that runs deep in the farming community with almost half of those surveyed stating that they are experiencing some form of anxiety, with a smaller group (12% and 16% respectively) experiencing either moderate or severe anxiety.

Recalling the early stages of his poor mental health, Richard says: “It was a very dark time. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. Being on a farm you have to. You have to feed the livestock, it’s a case of suck it up and get on with it. It was very dark.

“People say reach out when you feel down, but that’s the last thing you want to do. When you’re that low, going to talk to someone it’s the last thing you want. You can’t ask for help. You just don’t do it. That’s where seeing a psychiatrist helped. It was a complete stranger and you sit in a room and talk. They don’t judge you.

“Unless you have suffered from it or know someone who has, you will never truly understand but how do you explain that to someone who has never had to deal with it. You can have all the good will in the world but it’s not going to prepare you for it. It’s a disease that’s so underestimated. It’s not the same for every person. You can’t see it, and yet it is so dangerous.”

Whilst farming isn’t the only cause for Richard’s poor mental health, research has highlighted that there is a link between poor mental health and a specific farming sector, especially for those in the grazing livestock and lowland grazing livestock sectors.

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“If you’ve got livestock and the farm, you have to keep going. The animals don’t understand if you’re having a bad day, they’ll just know they haven’t been fed. Farming is what keeps me going and also what causes a lot of anxiety and stress.

“Farming isn’t made any easier by everyone telling you what you should do. It certainly is not easy at the moment and the Government throws everything at you including the kitchen sink. I wouldn’t say it’s the root cause of my mental health problems but it certainly doesn’t help. I couldn’t and wouldn’t want to do anything else but there are days where I don’t want to do anything at all,” says Richard.

Talking about your day to day problems and worries is often encouraged to deal with stress and anxiety, but for Richard it wasn’t that straight forward.

“You can give someone as much advice as you want, it’s up to them to get the help in the end. For those who are going through this now, do go and talk to someone. And if you are that low that you can’t, I hope there is someone there who understands and sees that you need help but you can’t ask for it,” he says.

Rachel and Richard Walker

Wife Rachel adds: “It is very difficult because you are never cured from poor mental health. On a daily basis you are watching that person. Richard does his best to cover his feelings and he doesn’t always talk. The more he won’t talk the more I realise that there is something wrong.

“When he’s worried about something he shuts down. It could be something like an animal falling ill, a bit of machinery breaking down – they are triggers for him. It could be a gate or a door left open and that whole day is then not a good day anymore because of one thing.”

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Describing how he felt when his mental health was at its lowest, Richard says:

“It’s as if you’re handcuffed; you want to reach out but you can’t. It is just not possible. It is then down to those close to us to spot that and help get the help that you don’t want. You can hide how you feel quite easily.

“Even today I can hide how I feel, I could be having a really bad day and you wouldn’t know it. My wife will know. She can see if there is something wrong and I’m not having a good day. She has to take me aside on those days and really have a go at me for me to tell her. You get into a pattern where you can hide it. People wouldn’t know. It’s the wrong thing to do of course but it’s easy to cover up and not accept what the problem is. It’s an easy way out.”

Whilst talking therapy is an essential element in dealing with poor mental health, medication is also often relied upon. In 2017, the minister for public health and primary care commissioned Public Health England (PHE) to identify the scale, distribution and causes of prescription drug dependence, and what might be done to address it.

The findings, though relating to England, paint a grim picture of the population’s reliance on prescription drugs. The review covered adults (aged 18 and over) and 5 classes of medicines including benzodiazepines (mostly prescribed for anxiety), z-drugs (sleeping tablets with effects similar to benzodiazepines), gabapentin and pregabalin (together called gabapentinoids and used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain and, in the case of pregabalin, anxiety), opioids for chronic non-cancer pain and antidepressants.

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PHE’s analysis showed that, in 2017 to 2018, 11.5 million adults in England (26% of the adult population) received, and had dispensed, one or more prescriptions for any of the medicines within the scope of the review.

The totals for each medicine highlighted that 7.3 million people (17% of the adult population) were taking antidepressants, 5.6 million (13%) were taking opioid pain medicines, 1.5 million (3%) were prescribed gabapentinoids, 1.4 million (3%) were on benzodiazepines and z-drugs were taken by 1.0 million (2%).

Richard Walker on his farm

No stranger to prescription drugs to help him deal with his poor mental health, Richard says: “The drugs are not nice. My wife knows how they affected me. I can’t deal with emotions very well and sometimes it gets extreme. I think it has also affected my memory quite badly over the years. I don’t think I was that bad before I started on the medication but I was on it for 13 years. That’s a long time to poison your body. Of course, the medication is a lifeline and I don’t think I’d still be here if it weren’t for the medication.”

Rachel adds: “When I first met Richard he was on antidepressants. He wasn’t able to show any feelings or emotions, that’s how the drugs affected him. He struggled to talk, he still does to a degree. When we found out we were expecting our first child Rhydian, we made a joint decision and he spoke to the doctors and they were happy for him to come off the medication. He has now been off the medication for over 7 years and I know it’s hard for him sometimes but he is more present than he is on the drugs.”

Richard and Rachel Walker

Richard adds: “I’m not sure how I cope now with the everyday. I’ve got 2 young kids, a wife; they give me a reason to be here. If I’m not feeling great I try to think what it would be like for them if I wasn’t around. What’s the alternative?

“I don’t think I want to go back on the drugs again. I know they will just knock everything out again. I didn’t have emotions, I was there but only in body. I’m not sure if the medication is always what you need, talking is a good start if you can bring yourself to do it.

“I know I’m not in a good place but then it’s having the acceptance that you need help. I often try to block it out, I’m ok, I can get through it on my own, no one will notice. It’s denial really. Supposedly I’m cured but I don’t think you’re ever really cured. I get by but without the support I don’t think I’d manage.”

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Though it is not only Richard who struggles to put on a brave face. Rachel, who supports her husband, works part time off the farm as well as helping with the home farm, also has primary responsibility for looking after the children and running the household. Finding time to look after herself can be a challenge.

The Big Farming Survey, carried out by the RABI, showed that women are more likely than men to experience poor mental health and wellbeing and that especially in the farming community, these differences are stark.

Levels of mental wellbeing, the report showed, are lower, while levels of anxiety are higher. The data further suggests that 43% of women are possibly or probably depressed, compared with 33% of men. In addition, over one half of women (58%) experience mild, moderate or severe anxiety, compared to 44% of men.

Aware of the signs of poor mental health, Rachel knows how important it is to look after her own mental health.

“I’m very lucky that I’ve got good friends, so when I’m not having a good day I can call on them and have a joke and a laugh. Sometimes I just need a bit of normality.

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“We’ve run on empty a lot and it’s not so easy to look after myself. There is always something going on, lambing, losing a calf. I have a job off the farm now, which is my escape and release and I enjoy it. I do also enjoy going for a coffee with friends, not that that was possible much over the last few years. If something is worrying me I write it out and make a list to manage my own stress. What’s not always easy is making sure that Richard is ok because we live in separate homes,” she says.

The future is something that Richard and Rachel have mixed feelings about. They’re not alone in foreseeing complex challenges though. Despite farming communities in general being quite optimistic about the future, uncertainty and change does play on their minds.

“We don’t know where farming will be in a few years, and that plays on our minds a lot. The ever increasing costs of living, input costs on the farm and general uncertainty are serious cause for concern. We have some lovely days, we have some very dark days. I can’t make Richard better but on a grey day I will try to make him realise why he matters and why he’s important for us. The challenges farming throws at us, we will deal with them together, for richer for poorer,” she says.

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Farming

Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society launches 2022 Student Bursary Award

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Would you like some extra financial support to assist with your chosen college or career path? Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society’s Student Bursary Award is now open for applications.

The £1,000 bursary is open to all qualifying students studying agriculture, veterinary science, agricultural engineering, food technology, forestry or other subjects clearly allied to agriculture. 

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The bursary is tax free and will be awarded to the student who, in the opinion of a panel of judges, has submitted the best dissertation on how the bursary will assist them to complete their course of study.

The last winner of the award was 21-year-old Gracie Morris, of St. Davids. A former pupil of Ysgol Croesgoch and Ysgol Dewi Sant, Gracie was in her fourth and final year at Harper Adams University studying BSc agriculture with crop management at the time of winning the award.

Gracie said, “It was an honour and a privilege to have been awarded the Pembrokeshire County Show student bursary award in 2019. The bursary enabled me to undertake research towards my final year dissertation on biofumigation to control Rhizoctonia solani in potatoes.”

“The bursary allowed me to be financially secure during my last year of studies. Most of my spare time was spent researching for my dissertation so having a part-time job alongside university was not not possible for me.”

Gracie recommends qualifying students apply for the award.  She said, “I would urge all Pembrokeshire students who study subjects that are clearly aligned to agriculture to apply for this bursary as it won’t only assist with your studies but will also give you great experiences such as undertaking an interview which is a key employment skill. It will also assist in your future career within the agriculture industry.”

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Qualifying students must not have won the student bursary on a previous occasion, the applicant must be studying or has been accepted to study agriculture or allied subjects at a UK college or university at A-Level or higher and the applicants’ family home must be in Pembrokeshire.

Rob James, Chairman of the Society’s Bursary Committee said, “A panel of independent judges, chaired by a representative of the society, will draw up a short list of candidates who will be interviewed and the winning candidate will be asked to give a short presentation at a future meeting of the society’s show council.

“The standard of applications has always been exceptional which gives a lot of heart that there are a lot of very talented young people in our community. We are very much looking forward to receiving applications for this year’s bursary and hearing from the younger generation.”

To enter, students must submit a dissertation of 1,000 words entitled ‘How the bursary will assist my career progression.’

Further details and the entry form can be found on the website: www.pembsshow.org or by calling the show office: 01437 764331. The closing date for applications is Friday, 1 July 2022.

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Farming

Tractor queues could lead to penalty points

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A warning for farmers this Easter Bank holiday weekend as police will be on the look-out for long queues disrupting the holiday traffic.

Leading farm vehicle insurance firmQuotezone.co.uk, which compares insurance quotes for farmers, says police forces will be especially aware of the Highway Code’s Rule 169 this weekend, as record crowds could be headed for their country road trip.

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Rule 169 says road users must not create or hold up a long queue of traffic; the rule pays special attention to those driving a large or slow-moving vehicle – potentially making tractor drivers high on the list to gain police attention.

Greg Wilson, Founder of Quotezone.co.uk, says holding up more than six cars could risk 3-9 points on a driving licence, and a fine of up to £5,000.

He comments: “Traffic jams could be more numerous and longer as holidaymakers avoid foreign trips due to the chaos and cancellation at airports and ports – with the addition of mass rail engineering works ruling out alternative transport closer to home.”

If tractor drivers find they are creating queues, the Highway Code and police forces advise that they pull over, where safe, and allow traffic to overtake, as frustration can lead to dangerous manoeuvres to try and bypass farm vehicles.

The police will also be looking at motorists with caravans, trailers and horse boxes who will need to be conscious of how their driving is affecting other road users. Sensible measures such as checking mirrors, and showing reasonable consideration for other road users should avoid prosecutions.

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Greg Wilson continues: “Farmers are incredibly busy and it’s not always possible to pull over but it’s really important to be as safe as possible on the roads and also safeguard finances. 

“Penalty points could see insurance premiums increase by as much as 25% for 6 points – given tractor insurance can be rather expensive, it isn’t worth the financial risk or potentially losing a driving licence if the new penalties push total points to more than 12.”  

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Farming union hits out over Welsh and UK Government’s lack of engagement on Ukraine supply chain crisis

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The Farmers’ Union of Wales has, for a second time, written to the Welsh Government urging them to instigate actions within their control to alleviate some of the pressures of the Ukraine war on Welsh farmers and consumers.

In response to the initial letter sent to the Welsh Government on 4th March 2022, in which the Union requested a roundtable meeting with them and other stakeholders to discuss such issues and possible actions, the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd stated that the Welsh Government did not believe such a meeting was appropriate.

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FUW President, Glyn Roberts
(Image: FUW)

In his letter of reply, FUW President Glyn Roberts said: “We are acutely concerned at the failure of both the Welsh and UK Governments to engage with the supply chain early on in order to explore immediate actions that will help mitigate problems that are having an impact now, and will continue to do so for the remainder of the year and at least into 2023.

“Such impacts are affecting and will continue to affect not only farmers, but also consumers, and this is therefore an issue not only for the food and farming industry but also for the Welsh and UK population as a whole.”

Mr Roberts also highlighted the need for the UK Agriculture Market Monitoring Group on which the Welsh Government sits to take a more proactive approach and share information in a more timely manner, stating:

“It is worth noting that the last set of minutes published on the UK Government website relates to a meeting held on 8th February 2022, many weeks before Russia’s attack on Ukraine.”

“I know you will be aware of the impacts being reported across the supply chain, whether in terms of cooking oil, fuel, feed or fertiliser, and predicted shortages, for example of eggs, and we fully appreciate that with regard to many of these there is little if anything that the Welsh Government can do,” wrote Mr Roberts.

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“However, there certainly are actions that can be instigated by the Welsh Government to alleviate some pressures for Welsh farmers which will benefit consumers over the coming months and years, and while these may be limited we believe it is incumbent upon the Welsh Government to act now in order to do what it can to assist farmers, food producers and consumers,” he added.

(Lead image: FUW)

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