Suffolk's farm chaplain has expressed alarm at a sharp rise in suicides in the industry in a single month.

Graham Miles - who is Lightwave Rural & Agricultural Chaplain for the diocese of Ipswich and St Edmundsbury - said he was told of four incidents in May alone.

He and others in the farming industry are calling on farmers to seek help and talk more about their problems.

While he was out and about at agricultural shows he heard reports of suicides among farming families. In some instances, he has been been to see the bereaved family. In total, he has heard of six among farming families this year.

There were no obvious common factors and they were from a very broad age range.

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The clergyman - who makes himself available day or night to anyone in the industry experiencing problems - goes out to comfort and support families after loved ones have taken their own lives. He also speaks to others suffering mental anguish.

"They have been brought to my attention which I then follow up. The one word 'why?' I can't answer.

"There have been no notes left or anything like that. It's sad.  What's going through that person's mind no one knows," he said.

"We just have to take each case individually. It's the people that find them that it affects - and the families."

Families seeking bereavement counselling in the wake of their loss could face long waits, he added.

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As well as his own support, farm charities such as YANA (You Are Not Alone) and FCN are keen to help those affected by mental health issues in Suffolk and the wider region and have helpline numbers to call.

"It's not just in Suffolk - it's across the UK. We are trying to get farmers to talk about how they are feeling," said Graham.

There was no pattern to the toll in May, he added. Two were young men in their 20s. The others - a man and a woman - were in the 50s and 60s, he said.

"The thing is you talk to the family and friends and they have no inkling this was going through their mind. One is bad enough but to hear four on the trot."

Beyond the suicides, there are farmers in the county facing many challenges and mental upset, he said. Among their concerns were new workplace standards and rules which could be hard to comply with.

"There's a lot of uncertainty going on at the moment. They keep coming up with these new rules and they just can't keep up with it and what with the weather we have had there are still farmers that are struggling," he said.

"We have had so much wet weather. Farmers have lost crops, they have not been able to put sprays on. There's a lot of blackgrass out there.

"They can still see their problem in front of them. It's a way of life to them - it's not a job."

Within the industry there is a lot of reticence around admitting you have a problem. Many traditional community activities which brought farmers together such as livestock markets where they could talk through their problems have been lost, he said.

"Farmers are a bit reluctant to admit they are struggling. It's not a failure to seek support or just to talk to someone. It takes courage to talk to someone. That's why my phone is one 24/7. I can't wave a magic want - I wish I could - but I am just here to listen."

He is heartened by agricultural companies which are taking a proactive approach to support staff with mental health problems and support him in his work.

Farm dealership Thurlow Nunn supported a special stand he set up with banners and leaflets at the Suffolk Show and Sovereign Turf at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge, has invited him to visit it regularly and talk to staff on a pastoral care basis.

"It's all about working together, working as a network," he said. 

Glenn Buckingham, chairman of the Suffolk branch of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), said the suicides did not appear to be directly related to current pressures in the industry - from weather to price volatility - but said it was important for farmers to talk about their problems.

"Why these events happen is very difficult to determine, but we do need to talk about it, as we know there are several organisations out there to help. We need to get round a table and discuss, share the results of this and improve," he said.

"For all of us there can appear to be difficult episodes in our lives, they will not be unique, they can be shared and surely resolved."

George Gittus - who farms near Bury St Edmunds and represents the county at the NFU council - has been a strong advocate of mental health support on farms since he suffered a nervous breakdown around 20 years ago.

He has been open about his own mental health battle and raises the issue whenever he can. 

Farmers could be too proud to seek help and saw it as a sign of weakness. In his own case it was the support of his family, his co-workers and his GP which helped him through, he said.

Farms were often multi-generational family businesses and no one wants to let the business down, he said. The pressures could be enormous.

"I got to the point where I couldn't get out of bed," he said.

In his own case he "ran his batteries completely flat" and couldn't cope.

"I'm living proof you can get to the other side," he said. "There's no shame - these things happen. We are all very proud people and try and do the right thing and look after people - either our employees or our family."

Graham Miles can be contacted at any time on 07413 683368 or email YANA's confidential mental health helpline is 0300 3230400. FCN's helpline is 03000 111 999 or email