World Suicide Prevention Day: A councillor view from the hill farm

It is World Suicide Prevention Day.

Tracey and Richard Huffer farm high on a hill in south west Shropshire. Tracey is also a health professional. Along with myself and four others, we are Lib Dem councillors in a very rural area. Sometimes it feels we can’t sit down for a chat without mentioning the “s” word. Someone else has taken their life. And it is mostly younger people, mostly men. This article reflects how on the growing problem of suicide in rural areas and the struggles councillors have to get help in tackling the problem.

Richard was at the livestock market selling sheep recently.

I was leaning against the railings at the sheep pens. An elderly farmer, a stranger, joined me and started pouring out about his son who had shot himself at the age of 30. I was probably one of the few people he had seen for a while, perhaps the only one for days.

I wish I could say this was a one off. Sadly not.

Tracey Huffer has been trying to raise the issue wearing her councillor hat:

I went to a health scrutiny meeting and told them of 54 suicides amongst our farming and rural community in south Shropshire over just a few years. The committee acknowledged the point but nothing has happened. Suicide and the urge to commit suicide are much bigger in rural areas than has been recognised, especially in remoter areas.

Mental health has always been the cinderella of health provision, especially in rural areas. It is so much harder to get help in rural areas. Distance matters as well as isolation. Face to face help can be a long way away and some farmers are not comfortable using the phone or internet, even if they have a connection.

Richard picks up the point:

Farming, especially hill farming, can be an isolated, even lonely job. There is no greater pleasure that driving a tractor over the hills with time to yourself. But isolation can cause its own problems. Too often we get a call or message telling us of a death. Then we ask why? What could we have done? What should we have done?

It is not all negative. Three years ago, the community in Ludlow launched a mental health and wellbeing drop in service for young people in our rural area. Shropshire Council has now banned us from using the local purpose built youth centre for this on spurious grounds but we are planning to erect a tent to continue in the car park.

Tracey:

We are in regression with mental health support in rural Shropshire. Everything gets further away and more difficult to access. We should be doing more, not less. Covid has increased the problem for many already suffering mental health issues. People with no previously identified mental health symptoms are coming forward for help.

Richard:

One of the biggest problems for farmers and rural workers was that there was nowhere to meet during the pandemic. Everywhere was closed. There was no opportunity to share burdens and groan about life. There was no opportunity to admit in a whisper that the bailiffs could be knocking at the door soon.

We live with uncertainty about our farming futures. The younger generation is leaving the sector, with many farmers struggling on way way past retirement age, working long hours in isolation, with little social interaction.

Tracey:

Suicide in the farming community is a hidden area of concern. Out in the hills. Out of sight. I am really concerned about the rise in suicides, especially in younger people. Help is needed. More funding is needed. More support needed. There are support networks in the rural community but many people most in need seem not to be using them. Our local GPs do an excellent job but they are stretched. As councillors we do what we can but we get no backing from our Conservative run council.

Richard ends the conversation:

It doesn’t come naturally to farmers to ask for help. They are proud and resilient. Often when a crisis happens it’s been building up for a very long time.

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* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Friday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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4 Comments

  • CALM does some good work, and the ASSIST training courses provide useful insight into suicide and suicidal ideation.

  • It’s terribly tragic that people who perform two such a vital functions for all of us – producing food and looking after the rural environment – are also sometimes lonely and isolated. A life in contact with the natural environment may sound idyllic to many city-dwellers, but it clearly isn’t always.
    I suspect one factor contributing to the suicide rate is the downward pressure on prices from supermarkets, and we must all share some of the blame if we encourage or allow them to reduce farmers’ income to unprofitable levels, all for the sake of, for example, a few pence off a bottle of milk. Being unable to make a living however hard you work must be dispiriting to a degree most of us in salaried jobs have never experienced.
    This year even the agricultural shows have mostly been cancelled, removing one of the few chances we have to interact with the farming community.

  • Cynasism aside the rate per 100,000 of the U.K. population hasn’t changed that much over the last 20 years.
    It was at it’s lowest in the latter years of the last labour government, increased during the coalition government, reduced during Teresa’s government and has increased again under Borris’s government, the lowest being 9 / 100,000 in 2007 and the latest figure, that I have access to 11 / 100,000 in 2019.
    One might reasonably expect a rise during the period of the Covid 19 pandemic and lock down.

  • Suicide results from suicidal thoughts. This might sound obvious but is profound. No-one can control their thoughts. We need a major educational effort in schools to teach people that you can safely ignore your thoughts. No-one knows why they occur and that they are essentially harmless if you understand that.

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