Fordyce Maxwell: Farming must tackle mental health

Young farmers' clubs have a proud tradition of supporting mental health issues. Picture: Craig Borland
Young farmers' clubs have a proud tradition of supporting mental health issues. Picture: Craig Borland
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Unless extremely fortunate, most of us will have at least once in our life found ourselves in a pit of misery and wondered if we could ever climb out.

Some never make it, as frequent reports of suicide by people of all ages and occupations confirm. But that last resort of a troubled mind is a tiny percentage of the many who struggle daily with mental health problems, including depression.

Saying ‘Pull yourself together’ or suggesting a mental kick up the backside won’t help

Fordyce Maxwell

One of the many tragic aspects of suicide is how often those who thought they were close to the person say they had no inkling of what might happen. The same is true of those who don’t commit suicide, but fight their own continual internal battle to stay busy and active, try to retain a sense of humour, see life and its absurdities in context, be useful, do a job, avoid dragging down those around them.

It’s not easy. We live on two levels, one face for the world, the hidden one for how we really feel. What the world sees is someone functioning normally, joining in, making jokes, learning new skills, affable, friendly. The misery beneath we try to hide.

When does trying to deal with that become true depression? Who can say? And how do some people cope with genuine horror and others don’t? Who knows? Reading about First World War battlefields or Japanese prisoner of war camps, we wonder how anyone went back to lead an outwardly normal life. But I’ve known veterans of both those horrors, and they did.

We might think events like that, and more recent wars and terrorist attacks, should put the daily rollercoaster of farming irritations in their place. We know the weather will eventually improve, a broken-down machine will be repaired, a spare part eventually arrive, that most ewes lamb normally, that most lambs survive, that crop diseases can be sprayed against, that prices fluctuate, that not all estate factors and bankers are illegitimate.

READ MORE: Young farmers tackle rural mental health

In a wider context we also know that for the great majority of us we genuinely, as Harold Macmillan famously said more than half a century ago, have “never had it so good”. Yes, there are parts of the world where that doesn’t apply, as television pictures from Syria and desperate attempts by migrants to cross the Meditteranean remind us.

But in a recent book called Progress, Johan Norberg has collated evidence that indicates that life – as measured by food quality, longevity, liberty, decline in violent crime, child mortality, literacy and much more – has improved steadily for at least two centuries.

Which means precisely nothing to someone suffering from depression and wrapped in their own cares. Pointing out how humanity in general is well and thriving might make a depressive feel worse. Saying “Pull yourself together” or suggesting a mental kick up the backside won’t help either. In spite of recent comments along those lines by a boxing promoter about the troubled boxer Tyson Fury, we’re past that approach.

Not least because it doesn’t work. What is encouraging is that we can now talk more openly about mental health as a problem that affects an estimated one in four of us. Today is World Mental Health day and organisations including RSABI, a leading rural charity in Scotland, and the Scottish Association of Young Farmers’ Clubs (SAYFC) are taking an active part.

These organisations and others emphasise that mental problems are not a social stigma. Talking to others can help. RSABI has a dedicated helpline – 0800 111 4166 – run with help from the Farm Community Network and it is open 7am to 11pm.

Although young people are statistically more prone to mental health problems and more likely than other age groups to commit suicide, the usual image of young farmers is one of rude health, boisterousness and over the top get togethers. It’s a commendable effort by the organisation to encourage members to look out for each other and try to recognise early signs of mental health problems.

That is not easy. We never know for sure what is going on in another’s head, or what to say for the best if we suspect problems. But we have to make the effort.

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