Calving time: Farmers must look after themselves during ‘sleepless season’

With calving season getting started – and the many sleepless nights that come with it – dairy farmers are being warned to look after their mental health over the coming weeks and months.

Cows will be calving round the clock for the next few weeks on most farms around the country, so it can be very hard to grab a few hours’ shut-eye between checking cows.

This, combined with worry or stress, can have long-lasting negative effects on a farmer’s mental health if nothing is done about it.

Impacts

A lack of sleep has been proven to have a negative impact on one’s body – both mentally and physically – causing impaired sustained concentration and decision-making, according to IrishHealth.com.

These lapses of concentration themselves can be potentially lethal when carrying out regular farm tasks such as driving agricultural machinery or dealing with livestock.

Impacts on the body include higher risks of serious medical issues such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure.

According to UK studies, even a few days of sleep deprivation have been shown to have a negative effect on one’s mental well-being, with participants in a BBC medical survey recording increased negative emotions such as stress, anxiety and depression after just three days of reduced sleep.

Short-term memory can also be affected through insufficient deep sleep.

As a result, during this time of year, it is very important to make an effort to think positively and not bottle up negative emotions – but to give voice to them.

‘Snowball effect’

Cork dairy farmer and mental health advocate Peter Hynes noted that it is not the lack of sleep on its own that affects people, but rather a combination of worry and sleeplessness together that can push people over the edge.

“It’s a snowball effect,” Hynes said. “If you’re worrying and under pressure about something, you can lose sleep from that alone. It’s that lack of sleep that can bring the onset of depression.”

“If something gets to me, I have to talk about it; get it off my mind. I have no problem talking about my own past challenges.

“I had an issue last year – worrying about something – and in the space of 10 days I’d lost a stone and a half in weight and was getting by on two hours’ sleep a night. It didn’t matter, I could go to bed at 9:00pm and I wouldn’t sleep; I could do nothing about it.

“If you don’t do something about it depression sets in very quickly. I had to force myself to eat to keep myself going,” added Hynes, an award-winning dairy farmer.

I had to talk about it; if you bottle it up, it just snowballs.

“Last year lads said to me that they could go two months on little sleep during calving season no problem – and that’s fine, but they weren’t anxious as well. It’s the snowball effect that can catch you.”

Hynes said that, in his opinion, not half enough is being done in Ireland at present to highlight mental health issues.

International issue

In the top five or six agricultural countries in the world, a farmer commits suicide every day, he noted. In France, a farmer commits suicide every two days; while in Canada and the US a farmer takes his own life every four days.

“In Ireland, 10% of the general population will have some sort of mental health issue at some point of their lives – this has been proven. This figure could be doubled in agriculture.

“There’s still a certain stigma around the issue with farmers; they won’t share if they have a problem. Farmers who don’t have issues don’t see it as a problem – but it is there.

“I’ve seen men the same age as me break down crying in front of me. Families have come to me looking for guidance for one of their relatives who might have a mental health issue – all these people are involved in the agri-industry.

My advice to them is to talk to someone; talk to your doctor and then a counselor. I just check in on them from time to time, to make sure they’re alright.

“You have to learn to manage yourself,” Hynes said. “If you suffer from depression or a mental health problem you have to learn to manage yourself. You have to recognise when you’re feeling down, think positively and do something about it.

“Discussion groups are a big help; lads might have two or three other farmers who they get on particularly well with that they can talk to.

“Pressure is a problem in farming – the whole environment; long hours and volatile prices – it’s more high-pressure than a lot of jobs and should be recognised as such.”

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