‘Men don’t talk about it’: The uncertain future driving our farmers to suicide

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Farming has one of the highest suicide rates of any profession. If you work in agriculture, you’re twice as likely to commit suicide than the average person.

The trees swing wildly in what has been a lashing of storms coming across the Atlantic. At a smallholding in the Teign Valley, the saturated ground seeps straight into my inadequate footwear. I squelch across mud to find Ian; he’s been farming near Doddiscombsleigh for over forty years, he used to keep cows but just keeps the sheep now. Ian describes how the price of lamb and mutton shoots up and down. For the lamb, the price is best around Easter, for the older sheep and their leftovers, there is a market for kebab meat, which goes up in value during Ramadan. It’s one of many changes Ian has seen over the years and he has certainly seen better times for farming. “I have no idea what these lambs will go for, the price is very, very low at the moment.”

Whilst the snow of the last two winters had a devastating effect on some livestock, for Ian, there was a silver lining to the snowstorm. “When the Beast from the East hit, many of this years’ Welsh lambs were killed in the snow, lamb from Devon actually shot up in price.” For Ian, the volatile market isn’t a life or death matter. “I’m lucky, I worked for the Water Board for years, so I have a good pension. I wouldn’t want to get into farming now, not farming on its own.”

Some of the challenges faced by farmers are as old as the hills they plough. But there are new challenges too. Everyday struggles and anxieties that have reached a critical mass. Speaking to a national newspaper a National Farmers Union spokesperson said recently: “I’ve had many worrying telephone calls, just in the last two or three weeks from farmers who are on suicide watch.”

Attitudes towards mental health have changed. The media, so often saturated with messages of “awareness”, are enough to instil older generations with a nostalgic yearning for the stiff-upper-lip. But as awareness increases, rates of suicide remain troublingly high in rural communities, especially in farming and agriculture. The stiff upper lip, it seems, is quivering.

Christine, a farmer from Chagford, knows the struggles that farmers face all too well. Christine has come a long way. As she talks, the clang of cutlery and background chatter in the café is million miles away from her own
attempted suicide.

Eight years ago on a January afternoon she was hospitalised. After a cocktail of prescription drugs and alcohol, Christine was found unconscious by the police on a remote part of Dartmoor after a concerned friend raised the alarm. Christine was one of the lucky ones.

The picturesque villages of Dartmoor are far from the front line for mental health services, access to help that you can expect in towns and cities. Perhaps it’s the price you pay for green fields and wooded valleys. “When I was suffering with depression I had to get myself to Crediton,” says Christine.

“The mental health team is based there. I was lucky, I had a car. But when I was unwell I was on a lot of medication and couldn’t drive anyway.”

‘I was always seen as this positive person and it became hard to maintain. With so much going on with family, business and the farm, I built up a facade and it was exhausting.” Christine was prescribed anti-depressants and talking therapy. But she had to wait 18 months to speak to someone, unless she “settled for someone who had just qualified”.

When it comes to depression, there are three main factors, I am told. Isolation, economics and the fact that “men don’t talk about it”.

Christine runs a business in ‘Succession Planning’. She helps to address some of the issues that are so often kicked down the road by farmers, be it family disputes, financial problems or farming methods. “My role is to address an elephant in the room,” says Christine. “We look at the books and see what’s making money. Sometimes, when farmers die, or get into debt or become sick, there is often of assets of value, all of which needs to be dealt with.” Once Christine establishes a relationship, she works with the farmer’s accountants and solicitors to get to grips with the business. A seemingly obvious task, which has sometimes never been tackled by the farmers themselves.

Christine goes on to explain the farming stereotype – physically robust, yes, but no good at getting a work/life balance. Her involvement is not always embraced either. “It’s often the wife that will approach me with concerns about their husband, and then I make contact.”

Christine regularly gives talks for the NFU and forms working groups with farmers so that they can share and talk about their issues. Her work and volunteering is mainly preventative but her interventions can be more urgent. “We have organised the police to confiscate firearms in the past. The police have always been very good at helping with that.”

A lack of frontline services in rural communities is nothing new. Neither, too, is the isolation. But whilst the economics of farming have changed, so too has the lifestyle. Traditional cattle markets have all but disappeared with the last one in the region at Hatherleigh currently under threat. “It isn’t just about selling cattle, these markets served as social occasions for isolated farmers,” says Christine.

The climate is changing. A meagre average temperature increase is seldom noticed, but it’s the fringe extremes where the change is most profound. Dumps of snow and plunging temperatures during winter and record-breaking heatwaves and drought during the summer. Drought is forcing farmers to buy in feed extra feed for their grazing stock, whilst the freezing temperatures can easily kill sheep and lambs.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) have been supporting farmers since 1860. Last year the number of farmers in financial crisis reached a record high. In 2018 alone, they had a forty-seven percent increase in funds given to farmers in need. Rob Harris who’s worked for the charity for years, says the adverse weather took a big bite out of farmers income. “Lots of working families struggled to recover from the ‘Beast from the East’. And they were hit by a prolonged and testing summer drought.”

Rob reels off some of the other issues they face: “Physical and mental illness, accidents, animal disease, family issues, personal debt, housing issues and cash flow concerns are some of the other reasons why people sought our help.”  There is a degree of uncertainty that has always been innate to farming. But the prospect of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit has exaggerated this insecurity beyond measure. Nobody can say for sure where we go from here.

Devon’s farmers have not been spared from the tragedy of suicide. Daniel Ashworth from Payhembury near Honiton, took his own life at just 23. He was described as a grafter who worked seven days a week. He became depressed after a breakup with his girlfriend, also the mother of their three-year-old daughter, Marley. His last words came in the form of a text message to his friend Richard: “Tell mum to look after Marley for me, I will love her forever.”

His inquest heard how he had previously spoken of suicidal thoughts as a child, but nothing since. His mother Jenifer said at the time, “He was a big strong lad but didn’t say much about how he felt.” The text message had raised concerns for his welfare, and so his stepfather and friend Richard went looking for him. Daniel was found hanging at a nearby farm, he was pronounced dead at the scene.

Daniel died alone, in a field; one has to wonder if the manner of his death illustrates the solitude that he and many other farmers face, every working day.