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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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