Mental health is not a taboo subject for our young farmers

In mid-February, the Farm Safety Foundation – Yellow Wellies launched a week-long mental health campaign called #MindYourHead. As a charity ambassador, I was asked to speak in a short radio interview, an article in The Times publication and was also a guest on BBC Breakfast.

Now, this isn’t the kind of opportunity a small farmer in West Lothian gets every day, so I jumped at the chance.

Talking about the perception of mental health in the farming community and how stigma devastates lives – on live TV – was a daunting experience. Around 92% of UK farmers under 40 say mental health is one of the biggest hidden issues facing farmers today. However, more importantly, as a young person in our industry, my opinions and experience of mental health are different from those of previous generations.

I’m 21, my parents are in their early 50s (sorry mum) and my grandparents are in their early 80s – three clear generations that each have their own set of defining characteristics.

Read more: Facing the mental health problem of agriculture

My conversations about mental health with these three generations are incredibly different and many in the older generation think mental health issues are ‘taboo’ and won’t be a conversation starter. As for the middle generation, they were also brought up with this mindset, so some will always hold this belief, however, young people today do not view mental health issues as a taboo.

We have all heard the chat “oh but mental health in agriculture is taboo, nobody wants to talk about it” – I think this is a very dangerous narrative to continue and will continue to cause harm in the future.

We “young people” think differently about mental health because we have had an entirely different experience following Covid-19, for example. The pandemic has wiped out our developmental years – a time when we are meant to leave home, go to college or university, travel to other countries in an effort to avoid adult responsibilities, meet interesting people , kissing boys we shouldn’t, working on different farms, going on vacation with friends, starting a new job… and figuring out what we want before we settle down.

Instead, however, anxiety and depression have skyrocketed and continued lockdowns have deepened the isolation and loneliness of our young people. Some 53% of 17-23 year olds have experienced a deterioration in their mental health since before the pandemic and the situation is not much better for our seniors, 34% of seniors agree that their anxiety is now worse than before the start of the pandemic.

With everything happening on an online platform, we think we’re connected, but we’re not. We have an online connection but there is no social connection and many have never met colleagues or classmates. The experiences we sign up for are not what we receive.

The question is…why do we treat mental and physical health so differently? I have two suggestions, two concrete and achievable suggestions – education and access.

Regarding education, have you ever had any training on mental health? Do you know many reliable medical facts about mental health? Probably not because very few of us have been taught. Education will help raise awareness and prevent mental health issues from going unnoticed, and we should teach others about different mental health issues, causes, symptoms, remedies, and other people’s behavior.

Prevention is more effective than cure and should be prioritized as such. Whether it’s the disease of the sheep on your farm, wearing masks to avoid catching Covid-19, or the mental health of our people.

The other suggestion is access – the work of charities, including the Farm Safety Foundation, is excellent. They work tirelessly to support farmers and rural people; a job takes hard work and patience, but why do we have to rely on charity to provide basic health care? Farmers could benefit from more accessible primary support before small problems become an all-consuming daily presence in a person’s life. As farmers, we all face the same problems, so why do we all face them individually?

Jessica C. Bell