NFU Scotland regional manager, Christine Cuthbertson, is a well-known figure in farming circles in Ayrshire. A farmer’s daughter with a real passion for the farming industry, she has carved out a successful career path helping and supporting the industry’s farmers, an effort she has dedicated her life’s work to.

However, despite her bubbly and energetic exterior, Christine has faced her own struggles with mental health over the years and by sharing her story with The Scottish Farmer’s readers, she hopes by talking openly about her own journey, she might offer comfort and support to others.

“Growing up, we never talked about how we felt – you would tell your parents if you were sick physically, but you would never say I’m worried or scared – it wasn’t part of the culture.

“When I was 13 or 14, I was badly bullied at school and during that time I was really unkind to myself. I told myself I wasn’t good enough and would never make anything of myself – I brought myself down on a daily basis.

“From a young age I was filled with self-doubt and this never left me right through my childhood and carried on into my working life. I always doubted my capabilities and even when I went on to be successful within the Young Farmers as a club secretary, which I balanced alongside my studying at college, I would break down in tears as I didn’t feel capable of doing it, but I always put so much pressure on myself to prove to others that I could manage.

“I always had negative thoughts in the back of my mind, the bullying in my younger years had destroyed my confidence. I felt like I was unpopular, that people didn’t want to be around me. My own guidance teacher used to tell me I would never get anywhere – he told me I was a failure.

“Even though I went on to study agricultural sciences, gaining a degree in food production and land use, and even when I achieved the top student of my year in third year – it still never sunk in that I was achieving success. I still found a way to bring myself down.

“You find when you have no confidence, that you over compensate with everything to try and get affirmation from people, but really, I now know, on reflection, that affirmation isn’t something which comes easily in the farming industry and that it is something you need to look for in yourself.”

Christine went on to become one of the youngest ever senior agents for NFU Mutual at the age of 26 – running her own business selling insurance within the farming community in Ayrshire. Despite displaying one of the highest retention rates of clients at 96% and constantly performing in the top quartile of her profession, she always felt she was being pushed to achieve more and she wasn’t quite good enough.

Christine continued: “In my line of work you weren’t just dealing with numbers but with real people and these were people you cared so passionately for and would break your back for them. I often found myself taking on the weight of the farming world on my shoulders and would find myself not sleeping at night as I felt there was more I could be doing and felt personally responsible for challenges facing the industry. I worked through foot-and-mouth and the dairy crisis, and my emotions were so wrapped up in the state of the industry.

“Along with the constant challenges being thrown at farmers, soon red tape came in and regulation was everywhere. The days of a hand shake being your word were over and you would find yourself drowning in paperwork.

“The pressure I put on myself built up so much that I would be en route to visit clients who I would normally so look forward to seeing and instead I was having to fight to have the energy and strength to see people.

“There came a point at NFU Mutual where I was carrying the full load of work alone, with the two other partners having left, so I made the decision to leave the business and took a job as a regional manager for NFUS. At the time people told me I was mad for giving up a good business – my own accountant was shocked at my decision – but I knew I needed change. I saw this small window of ‘escape’ and I took it.

“At the same time, I had recently got engaged to my now husband, Ian and we were moving to a new house. With all the huge changes going on around me, when I did move job I had a complete breakdown and every morning I was in tears at work.

“I couldn’t function, I couldn’t tell people what was going on and I just had to button up and get on with things. For me, stress manifested itself in physical symptoms. I lost my voice for six months on two occasions, a condition called vocal dysphonia. I had to go for speech therapy. Losing my voice felt like I was losing my identify.

“I broke my leg in 2007 just 10 days before my wedding day and then had to take three months off work thereafter. Here was a physical injury people could relate to, so it gave me the time to recuperate and take some much-needed rest. It did me the world of good, but it is so sad to reflect that it took a physical accident to allow me to have time to mentally heal.

“Looking back, I never took time off to look after myself when I was in a dark place and I really wish I had done. I was so worried about letting my clients and the industry down, that I didn’t prioritise my mental health. I cared too much about what people thought of me instead of stepping back for a moment and recognising that this was a matter of urgency and that I needed to address the anxiety I was feeling.

“So many farmers I know will always put everyone else’s needs before their own. If an animal appears unwell, a farmer will go out their way to tend to their needs, but they won’t look after themselves. When I worked in insurance, I found that farmers would think nothing of spending £500 on insuring a bull but wouldn’t take personal insurance out for themselves for half the price.

“Three years ago, I got my beautiful dog, Mishka and I can honestly say she has changed my life. I never used to exercise but now I take her for walks and going out and seeing the enjoyment she has for the small pleasures in life makes me so happy and in a reflective way I realise farmers never really take that time to just enjoy tiny pleasures. They are so often faced with life and death situations, financial stresses, I could go on and these can often get in the way of appreciating the amazing places we are fortunate to live in.

“I now try to fill my life with positive experiences and people. Instead of trying to take on the world, I take pleasure in small successes and trips which can add so much to your life.

“Working with the Royal Highland Education Trust as the local secretary and treasurer has really changed my life. You can be having a crappy day but seeing a group of smiling children seeing farming up close for the first time is such a fulfilling feeling.

“It’s been a long journey to get to the good place I’m in today, but I’ve now learnt to be kind to myself and I’ve realised you can speak to a counsellor or seek advice from others but really you have to make the choice to want to help yourself.

“We have a choice every time we wake up in the morning whether we are going to have a positive attitude towards that day. The more we open up about mental health the more we will create a culture where it is okay to say that we’re struggling.

“I would urge others that the next time you ask someone how they are – change the question to – how are you feeling?

“By adding that one word you will find a whole new conversation begins and with small changes like these, we will soon normalise conversations around mental health in rural Scotland,” added Christine.

Guidance and support

If you have personally been affected by any of the content in this series and would like to seek further advice, please see the contact details of specific organisations below:

  • Breathing Space – Lines are open Mon – Thu between 6pm - 2am and from Fri 6pm – Mon 6am
  • RSABI - Helpline open seven days between 7am – 11pm on 0300 111 4166 or
  • SAMH – Call the info service on 0141 530 1000 Mon – Fri between 9-5 or
  • Samaritans – Helpline open 24/7, on 116 123 or 08457 90 90 90 or
  • Support in Mind Scotland (NRMHF) Call on 0131 662 4359 Mon – Fri between 9am – 5pm or

If you need urgent medical attention, then please call NHS 24 on 111 or call emergency services on 999.