TWO farmers who advocated that it's 'okay to say you're not okay', spoke at NFUS North-east’s Mental Health Awareness Forum.

Local farmer, Kevin Gilbert and former NFUS vice-president, Gary Mitchell, from South-west Scotland, both shared their experiences and brought some fun to what was a sobering subject.

Mr Gilbert said a catalogue of issues had eventually brought it home to him that he had an issue with his mental health. After some years working away from home, he came back to the family farm and: "I found it a struggle, but didn't realise I was depressed," he said.

"My GP prescribed anti-depressants and these worked for a while but when the pig industry, in which we are involved, went through a bad time, so did I. It was no fun throwing £20 at every pig that left the farm," he joked.

He revealed that he found that his depression almost comes and goes with the seasons, and that he suffers from Seasonal Affected Disorder (SAD). Between counselling and visits to a psychiatrist and anti-depressants, Mr Gilbert said that he was now well able to keep his depression under control, but that the difficult bit as asking for help in the first instance

Stranraer-based dairy farmer, Gary Mitchell, also experienced 'life and work getting on top of him' and had taken steps to address his work/life balance. "I got to a stage where I had negative thoughts all the time and as anyone who suffers from depression will tell you, getting off the negative pathway is hard," he said.

A turning point for him was to accept that there was a difference between 'pressure' and 'stress'. "Pressure is something that you can be in control of, but stress is one thing you cannot. Basically, when you take control of what you can change, that makes other decisions easier.

"If I had to give a piece of advice, it would be to write down what you want your life to be like. Then make a plan of how you can get to that point. If that means not being a farmer, then so be it – I've already accepted that in five years time, I might not be a farmer," he said.

At question time, he later added: "The fear of failure is trapping us. This attitude needs to change and change quickly. We tend to devalue ourselves, but farmers have a lot of skills that can be applied in lots of ways."

Former farmer and one-time MSP, Jim Hume, who set up and convenes the National Rural Mental Health Forum, pointed out that a sad fact was that, nationally, mental health problems had a 'cost' of many £billions and that it is thought that 300,000 people had lost their jobs because of poor mental health.

On rural mental health, he said: "Good stock people see ill-health in livestock a mile away, yet we are not so good at seeing it in our own families and colleagues. We need to realise that addressing mental health awareness is everyone's business and we all need to learn to look out for the signs. Ask yourself, what can, I or my organisation do to help. Make it your business."

Issues with mental health are on the rise

Mags Granger of the rural charity, RSABI, is better placed than most to quantify the state of farming's mental health – it's not good and getting worse, she told the meeting.

Last year, the charity undertook 200 home visits and received 870 phone calls from those seeking support and mental health was a major factor.

One of the most shocking statistics was that one farmer in Scotland commits suicide for every calendar month. That does not include those who do not succeed and those that seriously contemplated it, she added.

"Very often, it's not all about financial worries, but just someone in need of support. The biggest increase we have seen is in our counselling service and we now have 25 referrals per month for that," she said.

"At the moment, we are seeing a lot of mental health issues associated with other health problems such as MS, Parkinsons, and cancer. Very often we find that it's not just financial but just basic business management advice that's needed. That's why it is important that we understand the problems that farmers face."

* If you or someone you know is struggling, then RSABI's confidential helpline, which is co-funded by the RHASS, is a good place to start. This is manned from 7.00am until 11.00pm, 365 days of the year. The number is: 0300 111 4166.