Mental health problems ‘on rise’ as farming debt mounts

Charles Smith, chief executive, Farming Community Network.

Charles Smith, chief executive, Farming Community Network. - Credit: Archant

Farmer stress is on the rise in Suffolk and Essex as farm debt mounts, a charity has warned.

FCN graph showing proportion of each type of case it deals with.

FCN graph showing proportion of each type of case it deals with. - Credit: Archant

Charles Smith, chief executive of the Farming Community Network (FCN), which runs a national helpline for crisis-hit farmers, says it has been dealing with 27 new cases in Suffolk in the last four months, with 10 so far this month. The Essex team is currently dealing with 21 cases.

“Nationally in the winter our casework was about three times more than normal. Sadly, in the last month it has been five times more than usual,” he told a farm Brexit debate at Debenham hosted by FCN (see pages 4 and 5 for coverage of the debate).

“We are living in very difficult times. No farmer is escaping the cruel reality.”

Farmers, who were normally highly resilient, were under “immense pressure” from debt but were also worried about the future, he explained. They faced a number of financial pressures including low prices for their crops and delays in farm subsidy payments, he said.

UK farmland prices have fallen from their all-time highs of a couple of years ago.

UK farmland prices have fallen from their all-time highs of a couple of years ago. - Credit:

“We are seeing mental health problems shooting up. I think it’s just the increasing debt that farmers are facing,” he said. “It’s just putting them under huge pressure.”

The charity, which provides practical and pastoral support to farming families suffering from stress and anxiety caused by issues on the farm or in the family home, said its 2015 casework (above) illustrated the kinds of issues farming families were facing.

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“Nationally, earlier in the winter, casework had increased threefold but in the last month we have seen this rise to nearly five times that normal for this time of year. Sadly it would seem that we are in for a very difficult year in farming,” said Mr Smith.

At any one time, the charity nationally is involved in around 2,500 cases supporting about 6,000 people, he explained.

“The major change over the past three months, is in part the result of poor commodity prices in all sectors. This has created enormous cash flow issues on most farms which has been compounded by the delayed payment of Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA),” he said.

“FCN has been working very closely with the RPA to release part payments to those farmers suffering particular hardship. However, it has to be said that in addition to financial worries, there is currently a great deal of anxiety amongst farmers about their future prospects. Many are facing ruin.

“Farmers are incredibly tough and resilient so frequently their reaction is to work harder for longer. This is leading to arise in physical ailments and a significant rise in cases of depression. Many are in an extremely fragile state. Sadly, thoughts of suicide are not uncommon in farming, especially at present. It is considered as a high risk occupation even in ‘normal times’ and now we are certainly living in extraordinary times for farming.”

In some cases, even forward-thinking farmers who invested heavily in becoming more efficient were facing extreme difficulties and were struggling to service their loans, he said.

“There are a large number of ageing farmers who are finding it increasingly difficult to manage the day-to-day physical tasks on the farm, so they too are suffering from stress and depression. Because they know of no other life, they cannot contemplate retirement even if they could afford to retire.

“Farming is what defines them, without it they feel they would have no identity.”

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