Lonely re­al­ity of de­pres­sion on the farm

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Padraig O’Mo­rain

When I read re­cently of what was de­scribed as a silent epi­demic of sui­cide among French farm­ers I was struck by the thought that, to many of us, the idea of a small farm in France is like a dream we will never achieve. But then I re­alised that to peo­ple in other coun­tries a small farm in Ire­land would seem to be as de­sir­able a get­away as a farm in France.

And in Ire­land, the Ir­ish Farm­ers As­so­ci­a­tion has a helpline in con­junc­tion with Pi­eta House for farm­ers who may feel sui­ci­dal (see http://bit.ly/ifa­farmhealth).

Why should this be? For the French debts, fall­ing prices and iso­la­tion have been blamed. For Ir­ish farm­ers it’s the same. Farm­ing goes through cy­cles of do­ing well and do­ing poorly but no farmer can pre­dict when the cy­cle will turn down­ward or up­ward. And for a farmer in late mid­dle age or old age who is not mar­ried or liv­ing with any­body then iso­la­tion can be very real in­deed.

Back in 2014, Pres­i­dent Michael D Hig­gins was among those who ex­pressed con­cern at a find­ing that “over half of farm­ing fam­i­lies are some way or other af­fected by the im­pact of sui­cide in their com­mu­ni­ties”. In a ru­ral area if some­body takes their own life then ev­ery­body will know about it and they will know how it hap­pened. I think this adds to the im­pact of sui­cides in a lo­cal­ity.

In cities a per­son could take their own life on the same street and you might never get to hear about it. So there is an ex­po­sure to these tragedies in the coun­try that you don’t get in the city or big­ger towns.

It also strikes me that the is­sue of uncertainty must be a key fac­tor in farm­ers’ well­be­ing. Hu­man be­ings don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty is the farmer’s com­pan­ion.The farmer does not know what the mar­kets are go­ing to do, what the weather is go­ing to do, what dis­eases may af­fect crops or an­i­mals or what new reg­u­la­tions are on the way from the Gov­ern­ment or the EU. There is no cer­tainty among those green fields. That height­ened level of uncertainty can only be bad for the farmer who, say, has wor­ries about debt.

Also, I would imag­ine that farm­ing lends it­self to think­ing too much. Ru­mi­nat­ing on neg­a­tive mat­ters can be a step into de­pres­sion. This is es­pe­cially so if the farmer is not get­ting to meet many peo­ple and to chat to them about what’s go­ing on. That chat doesn’t have to be about de­pres­sion: even blow­ing off steam about the Gov­ern­ment and hav­ing a laugh can bring the stress lev­els down.

Any in­volve­ment with other peo­ple can “take you out of your­self” and in its ab­sence, prob­lems can deepen in the mind and per­haps come to seem in­sol­u­ble.

But farm­ers who take their own lives in­clude those who have fam­i­lies and who are not iso­lated. So I don’t think it’s just about iso­la­tion. It may be that the com­bi­na­tion of uncertainty and too much time to think proves toxic in it­self.

But we know good so­cial con­nec­tions are greatly ben­e­fi­cial to men­tal health. Those who want to tackle the phe­nom­e­non of farmer de­pres­sion and sui­cide need to pay at­ten­tion to this. As banks, post of­fices, Garda sta­tions and schools grad­u­ally van­ish from ru­ral ar­eas and towns, the op­por­tu­nity to meet neigh­bours dwin­dles. We need to recog­nise the im­por­tance of or­gan­i­sa­tions like Macra na Feirme, the Ir­ish Coun­try­women’s As­so­ci­a­tion and the GAA, for in­stance. The days when peo­ple in coun­try ar­eas dropped into each other’s houses for a chat ap­pear to be over.

This prob­a­bly started with the ar­rival of tele­vi­sion into most house­holds in the 1960s but since then we have be­come more and more in­di­vid­u­alised. If we want to re­duce the im­pact of sui­cide in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, it seems to me that the so­cial side of life is where we need to start.

The IFA/Pi­eta House “Mind Our Farm Fam­i­lies” helpline is at 1890 130022.

‘‘ In a ru­ral area if some­body takes their own life then ev­ery­body will know about it and they will know how it hap­pened

Padraig O’Mo­rain (po­morain@ya­hoo.com) is ac­cred­ited by the Ir­ish As­so­ci­a­tion for Coun­selling and Psy­chother­apy. His lat­est book is Mind­ful­ness for Wor­ri­ers. His daily mind­ful­ness re­minder is free by email. Twitter: @PadraigOMo­rain

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