Loneliness and social isolation can be two of the cruelest struggles of any person’s life. The two are linked although not always the same; for people living in rural Ireland, however, the sparseness of facilities and low population levels can mean that those suffering from loneliness are physically out of reach of other people.
Farmers in particular can struggle; working alone on the farm all day, often until late hours when exhaustion brings you indoors, it can be hard to speak about the troubles of the day. If farmers live with families or partners, they can find it hard to find the time or the courage to speak out about any problems or stresses they’re experiencing. If farmers live alone, they may find it impossible to find the time or opportunity to venture out and talk to those in their community.
A study was commissioned by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy back in 2012, and it’s as true today as ever. The study said that more than 30% of farmers don’t tell anyone about personal issues. This staggering figure means that one in three farmers are struggling completely alone, and they may think that’s normal.
Whether it’s by choice to not speak out, or a by-product of having no one there to talk to, the issue could have devastating impacts on our national state of mind. In a country where emotional and mental health is disastrously misunderstood and underfunded, farmers form part of the most vulnerable groups in society.
Suicide and depression can be the result of compounded months of loneliness and lack of expression. When those in the farming community do not interact with others, they can fall further into themselves. If that inner world is dark or turbulent, then that darkness can take over.
There’s nothing to be ashamed of when struggling with your mental state; humans are naturally social animals, and our brains are built with a fine balance of chemicals. When a combination of bad emotional habits and a chemical shift in the brain’s make-up is experienced, depression can appear. It’s not a sign of being damaged, ungrateful, or broken. It’s something you can find help for, and it affects a huge percentage of your peers.
Today, there are several ways that depression and loneliness can be combated. Training your brain to deal with emotional turmoil through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), counselling, and sometimes through the use of medication, can help you build up your emotional intelligence. This involves regulating your thought patterns to keep on the positive, deflect unhealthy ideas, and identify when you’re having problems.
Combating isolation is a way to kill two birds with one stone. Loneliness can be eradicated and feelings of depression can be lowered. Becoming more expressive with your feelings and thoughts, and hearing the opinions and perspectives of other people who you tell your problems to can change the way you process negative emotions.
For elderly people in particular, it can be hard to find chances to interact with others. Sometimes older farmers live alone because their partner may have passed away, their children may have grown up, their neighbours may have moved, or they may have lived a solitary life since the beginning. Whatever the situation, the older generation cannot be ignored or left to live without company. A heartbreaking UK study by ‘Campaign Against Loneliness’ found that TV can be the only form of company some older people have; this kind of isolation has horrific impacts on mental health.
Even young farmers are at risk of social isolation; they may take over farms where there are few facilities for younger people. They can’t meet people their own age and talk about the struggle of taking on a new full-time career.
Since men make up the majority of the farming demographic, isolation and lack of emotional expression is a doubly-worrying issue. Men are five times more likely than women to die of suicide in Ireland according to ‘Walk in my Shoes’, the Irish mental health charity.
For some archaic reason, men are still conditioned to keep their emotions to themselves, and to feel ashamed of ‘weak’ feelings. Feelings are never weak; they’re what makes us human. For this reason, farmers are a social group that needs particularly strong targeting when it comes to fighting social isolation and depression.
We asked the IFA’s National Chairperson for Farm Family and Social Affairs Maura Canning about the issue of social isolation. She agrees that farming is definitely an isolating career.
“Farmers can be there all day, kids out of the house, no one to talk to except someone in the hardware store or on a run to the shop; even with a phone in their pocket, they’re unlikely to take it out and call someone to talk about their problems.
“They might go to the mart or something, but they won’t go specifically to someone and tell them they have a problem. We want people to start talking about it their problems. In rural Ireland, the level of services can be a huge issue. Children might go off to college across the country and they won’t come home on weekends because there isn’t even good enough broadband for them to study from home,” she adds. This absent family life can add to isolation.
“There is just not enough localised enterprise in rural Ireland to keep people coming back. Especially as farming becomes such a financially problematic job, we need to get tackle these issues.
For elderly people, it’s important to reach out, explains Maura: “To help out your neighbours who might be struggling with loneliness, I’d say just call into them. Visit them, even if you haven’t seen them in a day or two. Ask if anything is wrong, and if you identify a problem, particularly with elderly people, try and get the services in place to solve the issue” explains Maura. This can be helping a neighbour organize homecare help or Meals on Wheels, even.
If you need to talk to someone about any of the issues discussed, please call the number for Mind our Farm Families on 1890 130 022.