Fears of an increase in the number of suicides amongst UK farmers in the wake of spiralling debt caused by the effects of winter flooding, have triggered a joint nationwide initiative to help identify those at greatest risk.
The Farming Community Network charity has joined forces with the Campaign for Awareness of Mental Illness Among Debtors (CAMIAD) to help provide local “lifelines” for farmers who might be facing overwhelming debt putting them at risk of suicide and self-harm.
Together, they plan to draw up a list of accountants, solicitors, insolvency practitioners and other professionals serving rural communities who have been specially trained to recognise if farmers with serious debt have underlying mental health issues and could be at breaking point.
“There is seldom a month goes by that one of our volunteers is not called to help a farmer who has contemplated suicide because of debt or to help the bereaved family of a farmer who has died by suicide,” says Charles Smith, Chief Executive of the Northampton-based FCN.
“It is all too frequent a situation that our volunteers have to deal with and there is now a very real possibility that the number of suicides among farmers will increase in the months ahead as they have to face the financial consequences of the winter flooding.
“Farmers will do anything to protect their livestock and protect farms that have been passed down from generation to generation and this can add enormous pressure to what, even in normal circumstances, is an acutely stressful business. Sadly, often farmers in debt and distress do not call us for help until the bailiff is walking down their drive.”
He said that over the country as a whole farmers are known to be in high risk group of dying by suicide and in the financial aftermath of the flooding those risks could be heightened.
Farmers, he explained, who incurred considerable additional costs to ensure the welfare of their animals during the floods were now, as the water
is receding, likely to be facing the realisation of huge debts coupled with concerns that similar problems could affect their livelihood next year.
Currently, the Network’s team of 350 volunteers nationwide is dealing with crises at several hundred farms seriously affected by flooding, especially on the Somerset Levels. “There are also especially acute problems among upland farmers who frequently have to contend with the worst weather. There are many such farmers who, in fact, are still recovering from the effects of the severe snow of the previous winter,” he said.
“Farmers will tend to do anything to ensure that their animals are fed and looked after and in emergencies debts can rack up very quickly.”
Mr Smith said that that mental health issues among the UK’s farming community were “very common and more evident than people would imagine” with between 50-60 percent of those supported by the FCN found to have financial problems of varying degree.
“These problems are compounded by the fact that generally they are a very private and proud section of the community who tend not to speak openly about their problems or divulge them to others. Many can suffer from depression in a world that tends to be isolated from the rest of the community” he said.
In the majority of cases, he said that farmers faced with distressing debt would initially seek advice from their own accountant or solicitor who, in turn and if appropriate, would direct them on to specialist financial help.
“These professionals have the skills to deal with the debt and general financial issues but are very unlikely to have the training to recognise if an individual is suffering any mental health issues or know how to signpost them on for counselling or treatment as appropriate even if such problems are identified,” said CAMIAD co-founder Ian Williamson, an insolvency practitioner in Blackpool, Lancashire and Northwich, Cheshire.
Against this background CAMIAD, is reinforcing its efforts to identify professionals dealing with debtors in rural areas and train them to be aware of underlying mental health issues including the risk of suicide. “If these issues are recognised and acted upon lives can be saved” he added.
The one-day CAMIAD training course has been developed by Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and is delivered by mental health professionals at hosted venues and business organisations around the UK.
Chief trainer Nigel Crompton, a senior mental health nurse, said: “During debt counselling, suicide is often the elephant in the room and professionals, who don’t have training in such matters, are often wary about raising the issue with debtors.
“Our experience has shown, however, that most people will experience a great sense of relief if they are feeling suicidal and are asked about it in the right way.”