A foundation set up by the widow of an agricultural contractor who took his own life last year is working closely with the Farmers’ Union of Wales to help farmers suffering with mental health issues.
Pembrokeshire farmer Daniel Picton-Jones was just 34 and had two young children when he ended his life in July 2016.
His widow, Emma, who grew up on a dairy farm, said his death had been devastating and had brought into sharp focus a huge problem surrounding mental health problems among farmers and others who work in the industry.
The FUW is now exploring what help is available in rural communities for those suffering with mental health and recently hosted a seminar ‘It’s Ok to Say’ at its Pavilion at the Royal Welsh Show, which put the spotlight on mental health in the farming community.
FUW Denbigh and Flint county executive officer Mari Dafydd Jones said: “The ‘stiff upper lip’ is synonymous with the rural farming community and most farmers just get on with things. Many may be hiding problems from themselves and their families and friends and talking about personal feelings is uncomfortable for many.
“We’ve faced some pretty low-points as a farming community in the last few years, TB, price volatility and uncertainty about our future post-Brexit, this all puts a strain on our resolve.
“But it’s about time to break the stigma attached to mental health and if you’re feeling vulnerable, please open-up and speak to someone.”
Emma, a primary school teacher, set up the DPJ Foundation after her husband’s death last year.
The foundation aims to support people in agriculture and in the agricultural community by reducing the stigma that surrounds mental health and supporting them by signposting them to support systems that are available.
Their aim is to set up a talking therapies service specifically for people in the rural communities, men in particular who struggle with their mental health.
They also aim to ease isolation in rural communities by working with men’s sheds Wales.
In the year since setting up the foundation it has gained registered charity status, raised in excess of £25,000, Emma has received a Local Hero Inspiration Award and been named as part of a national group of 30 people who have been recognised as those who will shape the future of Wales in the next 30 years.
Sharing her personal experience, Emma says: “Although having never experienced poor mental health to the extent my late husband did, I have seen first-hand the devastating effect it can have on a person.
“I lived through a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs with Daniel over the last five years of his life.
“Daniel very much felt that he was alone with his feelings, he felt isolated and as if no one really understood what he was going through. However, he was completely wrong, thousands of people are going through what he went through every day.
“Agriculture carries a high rate of poor mental health for various reasons. Isolation and given the fact it is a male dominated sector are just a couple of reasons and added to that the pressure that comes along with being a modern day farmer all adds up to a recipe for possible poor mental health.
“What I think these men and women need to realise is that they are not alone.
“These feelings they are having aren’t ones that only they feel. There are many people who feel the same way, the same loneliness, helplessness and uncertainty.”
She continues: “It’s also important to understand there is no shame in having poor mental health. We all have mental health, various things happen throughout our life that impact our mental health and there is no shame or weakness in admitting you are suffering with poor mental health.
“The single most effective thing you can do to help yourself is to talk. Talk about your struggles and about what you are feeling.
“Just by telling someone what you are going through is one of the biggest steps you can take – you will feel a weight lift off your shoulders.
“Importantly if you are that person being talked to, you need to listen. It is too easy to offer advice and positive thoughts and ways forward, but ultimately that person has taken a huge step to talk to you and you need to just sit and listen and let them take the weight off their shoulders.”
She adds: “Support is out there, if you feel that your mental health is suffering the first thing to do is talk to your GP.
“They will be able to advise you on the best steps forward. There are also excellent services available within Wales specifically for the agricultural community, Farming Community Network and Tir Dewi being two and The DPJ Foundation who are in the process of setting up a counselling service.
“There is also Mind Cymru and Call Helpline Wales who can all offer support. Most importantly I urge you to talk, whether you suffer with poor or good mental health.
“Talk about mental health, have that conversation, look out for the signs among friends and be that person to listen.
“The more conversations we have about mental health the more comfortable people will feel talking about it and we can reduce the stigma that surrounds this awful illness that affects so many.”
A charity that helps farmers and farming families affected by poor mental wellbeing and provides practical and pastoral support through hard times is The Farming Community Network (FCN).
David Williams, FCN’s regional director in Wales, is no stranger to the kind of difficulties farmers face.
His farm operated a dairy unit of 150 Holstein cows before the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak took its toll.
As well as looking after the 35 FCN volunteers based in Wales, David is also FCN’s lead contact with the Welsh Government on farming-related issues.
He says: “People seek support from FCN for a number of reasons. They could be anxious about farm support payment, stressed about harvest or depressed about losing their cattle to Bovine TB. But the most common factor in almost all cases is poor mental wellbeing.
“If this is not addressed, the consequences can be devastating.
“Mental health is less of a stigma than it once was in farming. People are beginning to realise that bottling up your emotions is the worst thing you can do.
“But there is still much work to do. Farmers and farming families need to continue talking openly about what they are experiencing.
“FCN is on hand to listen to farmers who are struggling and will treat their case confidentially and without judgement.”
Gareth Davies, executive officer of Tir Dewi, is responsible for its development and operations and leading and co-ordinating a team of dedicated volunteers.
Gareth joined Tir Dewi around eight months ago following a career in business and consultancy and is using his development and project management experience to help him in the role.
While he has never farmed, his mother is from a sheep farm in mid-Wales so he has empathy with the farming community.
He also lives in the rural heartland of Pembrokeshire and is surrounded by dairy and arable farms. The more he learns of the multiple challenges faced by our farmers the greater his passion for helping them to overcome their problems.
Gareth says: “The variety and intensity of challenges faced by farmers in Wales is staggering.
“Trying to deal with them all alone when already working 16 hour days is not sustainable.
“Tir Dewi wants farmers to know they don’t have to be on their own, we are always ready to talk and offer support in whatever way we can.”
Following the seminar FUW Education and Training Committee chairman Alun Edwards said: “We had an encouraging discussion which moves the agenda on. There is still a stigma in admitting that this illness is widespread in the farming community, but meetings like this can only make a positive difference.
“We were pleased to have such valuable contributions from the panel members from Farm Community Network, Tir Dewi and the DPJ Foundation, the main charities representing the rural community here in Wales.
“As a public figure, I have been shocked by the response from the farming community to me opening up on the subject and I hope my experience of talking about it as the first step to cure can be shared among other sufferers.
“We have also come to the conclusion we need a lot more clarity as to where to turn for professional help and we call on government to reduce waiting times for treatments in this context.”