Good social connections can reduce rural depression and suicide

Debt, isolation and economic uncertainty all take their toll on farmers’ health

Human beings don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty is the farmer’s companion.

Human beings don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty is the farmer’s companion.

 

When I read recently of what was described as a silent epidemic of suicide among French farmers I was struck by the thought that, to many of us, the idea of a small farm in France is like a dream we will never achieve. But then I realised that to people in other countries a small farm in Ireland would seem to be as desirable a getaway as a farm in France.

And in Ireland, the Irish Farmers Association has a helpline in conjunction with Pieta House for farmers who may feel suicidal (see http://bit.ly/ifafarmhealth).

Why should this be? For the French debts, falling prices and isolation have been blamed. For Irish farmers it’s the same. Farming goes through cycles of doing well and doing poorly but no farmer can predict when the cycle will turn downward or upward. And for a farmer in late middle age or old age who is not married or living with anybody then isolation can be very real indeed.

Back in 2014, President Michael D Higgins was among those who expressed concern at a finding that “over half of farming families are some way or other affected by the impact of suicide in their communities”. In a rural area if somebody takes their own life then everybody will know about it and they will know how it happened. I think this adds to the impact of suicides in a locality.

In cities a person could take their own life on the same street and you might never get to hear about it. So there is an exposure to these tragedies in the country that you don’t get in the city or bigger towns.

It also strikes me that the issue of uncertainty must be a key factor in farmers’ wellbeing. Human beings don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty is the farmer’s companion.The farmer does not know what the markets are going to do, what the weather is going to do, what diseases may affect crops or animals or what new regulations are on the way from the Government or the EU. There is no certainty among those green fields. That heightened level of uncertainty can only be bad for the farmer who, say, has worries about debt.

Also, I would imagine that farming lends itself to thinking too much. Ruminating on negative matters can be a step into depression. This is especially so if the farmer is not getting to meet many people and to chat to them about what’s going on. That chat doesn’t have to be about depression: even blowing off steam about the Government and having a laugh can bring the stress levels down.

Any involvement with other people can “take you out of yourself” and in its absence, problems can deepen in the mind and perhaps come to seem insoluble.

But farmers who take their own lives include those who have families and who are not isolated. So I don’t think it’s just about isolation. It may be that the combination of uncertainty and too much time to think proves toxic in itself.

But we know good social connections are greatly beneficial to mental health. Those who want to tackle the phenomenon of farmer depression and suicide need to pay attention to this. As banks, post offices, Garda stations and schools gradually vanish from rural areas and towns, the opportunity to meet neighbours dwindles. We need to recognise the importance of organisations like Macra na Feirme, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association and the GAA, for instance. The days when people in country areas dropped into each other’s houses for a chat appear to be over.

This probably started with the arrival of television into most households in the 1960s but since then we have become more and more individualised. If we want to reduce the impact of suicide in rural communities, it seems to me that the social side of life is where we need to start.

The IFA/Pieta House “Mind Our Farm Families” helpline is at 1890 130022.

Padraig O’Morain  (pomorain@yahoo. com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.Twitter: @PadraigOMorain 

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