JANUARY can often be a 'blue' time of year – the post festive lull can be a lonely time and starting a new year with uncertainty as to the months ahead can bring with it challenges, but also excitement and opportunities.

As everyone has been sharing their New Year wishes, we at The SF would like to share one more – that as an industry we will work to tackle the stigma around mental health and will chose to value and prioritise our mental wellbeing in the months ahead.

In this fourth instalment of the ‘Mind Your Health’ series we speak to a farmer from Lochaber who has battled his own journey with mental health and having come out the other end stronger, believes that others can and will do the same.

Paolo’s story: finding life’s balance

Paolo Berardelli, a second-generation farmer who runs a mixed livestock operation in Lochaber, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years ago. Thankfully, through the ongoing support of his family and medical intervention, he has been able to get his life back on track.

Paolo and his wife, Elspeth, have five children between the ages of eight and 19 and together they live at the Great Glen Cattle Ranch, near Spean Bridge – Paolo’s father bought the hill farm in the early 1980s. They own 1800 acres and look after 100 Galloway cows and 400 Blackface ewes at the Great Glen in addition to 3500 acres owned and 2500 acres rented from the National Trust of Scotland, of mountain land in Glencoe, where they run 1000 Blackface ewes. It is a busy operation for the Berardelli family who have turned organic in recent years and do a bit of deer stalking, run two micro-hydro systems and operate four bio-mass boilers.

He began to experience short bouts of depression initially in his early 20s and again more severely in his late 40s. After a couple of years of suffering from mood instability, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression; a condition that affects your moods, which can swing from one extreme to another.

Keen to share his story with the farming community, he said that more than ever people are working long, lonely hours on their own and face-to-face contact is becoming a thing of the past. He stressed that males particularly can be guilty of harbouring theirissues and need to speak more openly about their mental health.

“I experienced depression in my twenties for the first time, but it was in my late forties where it really began to impact on my life. It was a busy time with our big hill farm and trying to juggle helping look after a large family and various projects outside the farm, it all got a bit too much. I can’t say exactly what the trigger was, but I remember the first time it hit me – it was like a bolt out of the blue and completely bowled me over.

“I began getting periods of low mood – I just didn’t feel like myself. I was always such a positive person and suddenly found myself getting angry and frustrated at the way I was feeling. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning, everything seemed to be a drag. I couldn’t cope with the everyday farm routine and instead of looking forward to the different times of year, they filled me with dread.

“My sister encouraged me to go see my GP at the time but I was dead against medication, hoping I could get through it myself, so continued to struggle on as things got worse for the next two years. I started getting prolonged bouts of extreme depression, followed by short periods of elation verging on mania – everything was out of balance.

“I have never felt anything in my life as powerful as depression, it is all consuming, your mind is in constant state of anxiety and when I was in these periods I would struggle to get out of bed. I spent time sobbing, everything felt so dark – like being in a deep black hole you couldn’t even start to get out of. Decision making is impossible and your confidence is blown. Real life is going on around you and you just don’t feel part of it, you live very much in your own small world. The worst times were in the morning. At night you were thankful you were going to sleep to get away from it all, but inevitably you wake early, around 3 or 4 am with all these black thoughts going around your head. You feel like a failure, you question what you have done with your life, regrets become a big part of your thoughts – which is just pointless. The worst time for people with depression is that early morning, when you’re up and going it can sometimes help take your mind off it to an extent.

“Most farmers can’t take time off work to rest or just get away for a while so inevitably depression can easily get worse. With farming you never fully feel in control of what you’re selling or what subsidies you receive and obviously weather has a habit of knocking you down – it can you feel like you’re at the bottom of the pile. It is hard to feel real pleasure as you are constrained by elements out of your control.

“That was one phase of how I was feeling. I would then go from experiencing a 3-5 month low period to a high when I was only sleeping four to five hours a night and had boundless energy – it was like being on speed. When I felt good I felt almost superhuman. I had this huge amount of energy and felt almost invincible. I could see things I wouldn’t otherwise see, my senses would be heightened, everything was just incredible, you love life way more than normal, want to interact with people much more, – it’s like running in overdrive.

“When I experienced these heightened moods where suddenly there weren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. I would be jumping on my emails at three in the morning, going at a million miles an hour, but the problem was that it would never last long and suddenly I would come crashing down.

“It was more difficult for those around me when I was in a high state of mood. I felt nobody could keep up with me, so I would get fractious, impatient, tetchy and slightly aggressive. I experienced these two extremities for a year before my GP referred me to an NHS psychotherapist who then diagnosed me with bipolar 2 disorder.

“Everyone experiences ups and down but bipolar disorder accentuates these feelings markedly making it difficult to function normally. Together with the psychotherapist, we began to plot a diary of my mood against time on a graph, so we could see the ups and the downs – which was very helpful. She prescribed Lithium to begin with, a mood stabilising drug, as it was obvious I needed medication. However, it didn’t agree with me so I’m now on a combination of Fluoxetine and Olanzapine which is used to stabilise mood.

“I feel more in control now and couldn’t be more grateful for the help I have received from medical professionals but mainly the love understanding and endless support of my family and close friends. Depression runs in my family, so I was lucky in the sense that I had people who had gone through similar experiences that I could turn to for support.

“Depression can make family relationships difficult – a child or partner can easily blame themselves for your low mood – it can be difficult for your family to recognise when depression has taken over.

“Partners who stick with you through dark periods show a big commitment, as it can be huge burden to deal with – they can almost feel like a single parent as they’re trying to keep things normal for the children and still having a depressed partner to comfort and look after. I have been blessed with a fantastic wife who copes with me through all the tough times and even comes to see the psychotherapist with me.

The Scottish Farmer:

Paolo's family have been a real rock for him during turbulent times (left to right) Fergus, Carla , Livia, Elspeth, Paolo, Anna and Giorgio

“Last year was a particularly difficult time as we lost our shepherd Sandy to suicide in April. He had been working with our family for forty years and was very much a member of our family. It was completely out of the blue and a huge shock to us all. Following Sandy’s death, I have been more open with others about my own condition and have even admitted to dark periods where I have battled with suicide myself.

“People who suffer depression often experience suicidal thoughts and when your head is in that place, you don’t see it as a selfish act but as way to remove the burden you are putting on everyone else. Death is not alien to farmers - you grow up surrounded by it. Maybe as a farmer you understand it more and maybe it makes you less afraid of death?

“Since Sandy died, it has made me think a lot more about what I’m going through, what suicide has meant to us as a family – it really puts things in to perspective. What stopped me acting out my own suicidal thoughts was acknowledging the absolute mess it would leave behind for my family, the pain I would put them through.

“I have spoken to other shepherds and deer stalkers about Sandy’s death and they have pinpointed an inherent problem with firearm licensing – a firearm owner is obliged to disclose a mental health problem which has caused a catch 22 problem – does a shepherd or deerstalker admit he/she has a problem and seek help with the risk of losing their firearm licence which is probably essential to their job?

“I have been learning to manage my disorder and part of the process has been learning to share my responsibilities with others and lessen my load. I’m 52 now and I have had to let go of my ‘control freak’ tendencies and ask people for help on the farm when I need it. I try to get away on short holidays - even just for a couple of days every three or four months – it helps you get a clean break from it all to reset your mind.

“They say 25% of people experience depression at some point in their life but I imagine this is possibly higher in farming, it’s just that people don’t talk about it. Living on a farm might seem idyllic to all those looking in, but the reality is you live in your work place and you are waking up at work every day - it can be difficult to separate work and home life. Yes, working with your family on the farm is rewarding but it’s vital to make time for yourself and your family out with the farm.

“The main message I want to convey from my own experience is that if you are feeling low or depressed, you must seek help. Confide in a family member or close friend for sure, but also go to your GP. You might feel you should be able to cope with this yourself and admitting this to someone will show a weakness but admitting to yourself you have a problem is the first step you must take to recovery. There is a wealth of experience and help out there to improve your situation, it won't be an easy road and it will take time, but you must take that first step yourself. It will probably be the biggest step you've ever taken in your life but you must take it,” urged Paolo.

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 rsabi@rsabi.org.uk

Scottish Association of Mental Health – Call the info service on 0141 530 1000 Mon – Fri between 9-5 or enquire@samh.org.uk.

Samaritans – Helpline open 24/7, on 116 123 or 08457 90 90 90 or jo@samaritans.org

Support in Mind Scotland (National Rural Mental Health Forum) Call on 0131 662 4359 Mon – Fri between 9am – 5pm or info@supportinmindscotland.org.uk

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