While many people are reluctant to reach out for help on mental health difficulties, sweeping them under the carpet will create an elephant in the room and worsen the situation, according to one retired dairy farmer who asked not to be named.
Having availed of support services from Aware when he was diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder in the 1980s, his advice is to seek support at the earliest possible stage.
“Statistics for this year show that four out of 10 people will not tell relatives or colleagues that they have a mental health difficulty. There are very few other conditions where that would be the case. Aware wants to open up the topic, and encourage people to seek treatment as soon as possible,” he said.
The agricultural community and people living in rural areas can be particularly reluctant to open up about mental health issues, he said. In his own case, the long hours and labour shortages associated with dairy farming exacerbated his mental health issues.
The hours in dairy farming are like those of junior doctors, except that junior doctors only have to endure them for a limited time, whereas they are ongoing in farming.
The realisation that something was very wrong struck when he couldn’t sleep despite working 16-18 hour days. “I went from doing everything to not being able to do anything at all, and wondering why everyone else could, as my usual response was to work longer, harder, faster.
He sought help through his GP. “While I was in hospital, my father – who was alive at the time – and my wife kept things going, and farm relief services were brought in. It was difficult.
With my condition, you have to learn what your vulnerabilities are, and manage them in such a way that they will not be compromised. Aware was just starting at the time, and when I went along to the group, it was the first place I felt normal.
Mental health difficulties present challenges not just for the affected person but for their family and friends as well, he said. “Women with postnatal depression will often say they get visitors when they are in hospital, but when it’s ‘normal’ depression, they don’t.
“There is a general lack of knowledge about mental health issues, and a stigma still. That’s what Aware is trying to break down, encouraging people to speak about them, as they would about other health conditions. There is free and confidential help out there from many organisations, in many forms – including online – that will equip people to deal with stress and other issues.
“Dairy and tillage farmers in particular need to keep an eye on their psychological health, which can be affected by working extreme hours.
The farm exacerbated the problem but it wasn’t the farm that created it. The cycle of life on the farm grounds you, and working with nature can be subconsciously be very soothing.
“It is difficult to get skilled labour and if you’re the person running the place, and know your family is depending on you, it’s very difficult. You can’t just take off as the cows need to be milked twice a day. In the end, I did get someone skilled to provide full-time help which took a load off my mind.”
His experience has taught him the value of perspective. “I know what’s important in life and what can be done without. Learning about myself has given me greater contentment and fulfilment. My message is to get help – mental health difficulties can be managed just as other conditions can be, if you know what to do.”
Support services include 37 support and self care groups nationwide; a Freephone support line is also available at: 1800-804848 while a support mail can be reached at [email protected]. Both services operate 365 days a year.
Aware is also committed to working towards preventing mental illness through education, providing skills- based programmes to adults, teenagers and workplaces nationwide to empower people to look after their mental health. All support services and public programmes are provided free of charge. More information can be found on the Aware website.