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Farming in crisis Tuesday, 14 September, 1999, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Stress and suicide in the country
stormy farm
Stormy days for farmers
By BBC News Online's Liz Doig.

According to the mental health charity Rural Minds, one farmer a week takes his own life.

Farming in crisis
Research carried out for the Department of Health by a team at Oxford University indicated that in England and Wales, farmers' decisions to commit suicide were most frequently the result of a mental health problem compounded by occupational, financial, health or relationship problems.

Twice as likely to commit suicide

The study - Suicide and Stress in Farmers - was commissioned in response to the high rates of suicide in the farming community.

Its findings make grim reading, especially as its focus was a period before the BSE crisis took hold. Farmers are twice as likely to kill themselves as other men of the same age.

Through the 1998 BSE crisis, the suicide rate averaged out at two farmers a week - usually as a result of hanging or shotgun wounds.

farmer in field
Farmers don't like asking for help, says Rural Minds
Now, the farming community says its financial predicament is worse than it ever has been.

Hill farmers and pig farmers especially are now suffering the effects of what has been branded as the worst crisis since the 1930s.

And those effects are not just financial - the stress placed on farmers struggling to keep their business together and a roof over their family's head is having terrible repercussions, says Amy Woodhouse of Rural Minds - a branch of the mental health charity Mind.

Farmers and farm workers by the nature of their work are a pretty solitary bunch. On top of that, they often have the added pressure of feeling obliged to keep a family business running.

They are not generally the type of people to seek help actively for personal problems, preferring to "cope" with whatever is thrown at them.

pig
Whole sectors of farming are experiencing financial difficulties
Even so, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, which can award grants to struggling farmers, has seen a 1,000% increase in calls for help since 1998 - compared to 1994-97.

Spokesman Douglas Graham told BBC News Online: "We offer assistance to people in two categories - retired farmers who are finding it difficult to make ends meet, and also working farmers who are experiencing difficulties.

"We are now awarding a total of 10,000 a month to about 200 working farmers in difficulty, compared to 8,000 a year in the 1994-1997 period."

Any farmer who is in need qualifies for help from the charity, which sends welfare officers, in complete confidence, to visit applicants.

Help is given to farmers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with the payment of domestic bills to make sure that the farmer's family has food and fuel through a bad patch.

Stigma

Mr Graham added: "We can often also help people to understand what other benefits they can claim. People often don't realise that they can claim things like family credit, and that can make all the difference."

Following a change in the charity's rules last year, it is also able to give help to farm workers.

And, says Ms Woodhouse, farmers also feel that there is a stigma attached to any hint of business failings.

She told BBC News Online: "In 83% of rural communities there is no GP, there are also very few libraries and Citizens Advice Bureaux.

"Farmers are not only isolated in the job that they do, but like the rest of the rural community, they can be cut off from health care services."

Rural Minds is in the process of setting up a telephone conferencing service where up to six people will be able to get together on the telephone and chat to one another and offer support.

bale of straw
Isolation: 83% of rural communities do not have a GP
The idea is that, as with a drop-in centre, people affected by depression or other mental health problems and issues will feel less alone if they are able to talk to fellow sufferers.

Other help is available as well. The Christian church has been at the forefront of providing helplines and advice to crisis-stricken farmers.

The Rural Stress Information Network was set up in 1996, and is manned by volunteers from other organisations including the Samaritans and the NFU.

Its director, Reverend Nick Read, is Chaplain for Agriculture and Rural Life for the Diocese of Hereford.

He told BBC News Online that although the current situation in farming had been compared to the depression of the Thirties, it was in fact worse, because of the level of debt of many farmers.

He said: "Towards the longer term, there will always be a need for food production and farmers.

"Looking in the shorter term, the prospects don't look very good.

"Amongst the things we can try to help farmers do is to restructure, or to get out of farming and have something to retire to."

He said that government help and support for farmers were crucial.

Ms Woodhouse agrees. She said that a holistic approach was required to solve many of the problems which exist in an increasingly impoverished countryside.

She said: "The trouble is that many problems are masked because some areas of the countryside are very affluent. So when you look at average figures, you get an unrealistic representation of what rural life is like for many people.

"There needs to be redevelopment of the rural economy, as well as an awareness of mental health issues."

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