Few realise the struggles of farmers who grow and produce the food we consume every day. The friendly faces people see at local markets can hide a painful truth.
The suicide rate of English farmers is the highest of any occupation in the country; a silent killer that has been affecting those in agriculture for decades.
Research indicates that farmers are approximately three times more likely to take their own lives than the average person and in 2010 alone, more than 70 British farmers committed suicide.
Farmers can find themselves susceptible to depression and suicidal thoughts because of the many stresses of the job, ranging anywhere from death of their livestock to unfavourable weather. However, the most pressing issue facing farmers is financial stress - about a quarter of farmers’ earnings are on or below the poverty line.
There are organisations in the Tyne and Wear area which specialise in trying to help farmers’ solve their problems. One such organisation is the Farming Community Network (FCN), a voluntary support group formed in 1995 as a response to the high suicide rate among farmers.
FCN’s co-ordinator for Northumberland, Simon Lloyd said,
“Each farmer runs an individual business and is very reluctant to expose problems for fear of pressure from debtors damaging their business […] Add to this the isolation factor and the battleground that the countryside has become between competing interests such as environmentalists, animal welfare fanatics and a feeling of not being appreciated by the general public.”
FCN offers farmers direct support by speaking to them and finding out the cause of their stresses.
“In our experience capable people are at times thrown off balance and unable to cope,” Mr Lloyd said. “Helping them to see how to cope gets them back on balance and this starts by enabling them to talk in confidence.”
Stuart Windsor, an organic grower with North East Organic Growers in Northumberland, feels part of the reason farmers are taking their lives is because of access to dangerous supplies and equipment.
“A lot of people farm traditionally, so they just use what’s available to them. Unfortunately, some of these things are going to be chemicals,” he said.
Having access to poisons, firearms and machinery means an attempted suicide is more likely to end in fatal consequences.
“We work on an organic farm, so we don’t use any herbicides or pesticides, there are no chemicals, and there are strict rules we have to follow,” Mr Windsor said. ”We sell directly to the customers, so there’s not a lot of pressure. Generally you don’t have people breathing down your neck.”
Despite the help available, mental health issues within England’s farming community remain a taboo subject and some farmers may feel ashamed to seek the help they need. Mr Lloyd says he doesn’t feel right now there’s enough support in England for farmers and families of farmers dealing with thoughts of suicide, but says “we are doing our best to develop it.”
If you are concerned or affected by any of the issues raised in this piece then contact the The Farming Community Network at www.fcn.org.uk or on 01788 510866.