Farming and mental health – past and present

Covid-19 is already having a massive economic, social, and psychological impact on rural communities and the farming sector. The impact on mental health and wellbeing will be ongoing, adding to existing pressures. In this post, Dr Sarah Holland of the University of Nottingham explores the historic relationship between rural communities, farming, and mental health. She draws on The MERL’s farming press holdings and on regional newspapers and archives. These sources help show us how countryside crises have been significant triggers to mental ill health in the past. These histories also reveal how a series of consecutive challenges can make problems worse.

The 1865-67 Cattle Plague was well known for causing financial hardship but it also marked a sharp increase in suicides. Inquests into these deaths highlighted the direct correlation between the loss of cattle and suicide, noting farmers who had become ‘low spirited’ or were in ‘a desponding state of mind’ due to the loss of cattle. In one instance, the relationship between the economic challenges and the psychological impact was highlighted, with a report noting:

‘The family appears to have been ruined by the cattle plague, and the approach of rent day without any means of meeting it had preyed on the deceased’s mind’.

Official policy responses were focused on tackling the ‘primary’ issue, the spread and containment of animal disease and animal health. Insurance schemes sought to offer financial support. Media coverage, both in regional newspapers and the agricultural press, also focused on animal disease and financial issues. Moreover, whilst many livestock breeders and fat-stock farmers experienced great hardship, others were thriving, as revealed by this livestock medal. Occasional references were indicative of underlying psychological concerns. One regional newspaper highlighted the emotional as well as the financial investment farming families had made, and the devastating psychological impact of losing livestock.

Two faces of a white medal encased in a silver ring. Features a relief picture of farm animals on one face and engraved text on the other face.
Medal presented to William Mason in 1866 for being the largest purchaser of fat-stock at the Birmingham and Midland Counties Exhibition. This helps to show that many were still able to thrive during cattle plague, just as others in the farming community saw their livelihoods destroyed (MERL 86/211)

Within a decade, the agricultural depression had taken hold, exacerbating existing anxieties. Again, suicides were attributed to economic hardship in the agricultural sector, but there was also an increase in the number of farmers, farm labourers and those employed in occupations associated with agriculture (e.g. food processing) admitted to psychiatric institutions. Many of these admissions were attributed to the agricultural depression, with admission records for psychiatric institutions noting the triggers to include ‘loss of employment’, ‘want of success in business’, ‘due to trouble in business’, ‘due to financial difficulties’, and ‘due to loss of cattle and money’. In 1881, The Farmers’ Alliance highlighted the perilous state of farmers’ finances and the effect on their wellbeing, and urged parliamentary intervention, stating that:

‘There were more suicides amongst farmers than any other class; and…in a certain lunatic asylum three-fourths of the inmates were farmers’.

However, in the 1894 Royal Commission on Agricultural Depression there was only one reference to suicide, which attributed to tenancy issues and the inability to pay the rent. In spite of an awareness of the psychological impact on the farming sector, responses which addressed this specific issue were limited in scope. Again, there were those who thrived and prospered, often as a consequence of the misfortune of others. For example, the Forces for Change gallery at The MERL features a wagon that belonged to George Baylis, a farmer, innovator, and improver who profited enormously at a time when so many struggled to make a living. During the 1890s, when many farmers were still feeling the ongoing effects of the agricultural depression, medical professionals noted that outbreaks of influenza meant members of rural communities were further susceptible to mental illness, due to both the long-term impact of the virus and the economic uncertainty and challenges it posed for the farming sector.

Large red and yellow bow wagon with painted front board reading 'G. Baylis'
This wagon belonged to George Baylis who started farming in the 1860s with just 350 acres, eventually expanding his holdings to 12,000 acres. This success all came at a time when the fortunes of many others were in decline (MERL 54/365)

Over a span of just thirty years, rural communities and the farming sector have endured a series of consecutive crises which may be seen to have triggered mental health problems. A parallel can be seen here with COVID-19, if set within a 20-year context, with a series of crises impacting on the countryside. These might include the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, uncertainties surrounding Brexit, and other economic anxieties. During this period, the agricultural press explicitly addressed mental illness within farming communities. In the March/April 2001 issue of The Landworker, a report highlighted that farm suicides were on the increase, with figures ‘the worst for a decade’. Later that year, the November/December issue discussed the long-term effects of foot and mouth, quoting a farm worker who said they felt ‘very hemmed in, both literally and psychologically’ as a result. Official reports still focused primarily on spread and containment, whereas independent reports highlighted the social and psychological impact of the crisis. A more recent report in the September/October 2010 issue of The Landworker highlighted how working long hours in isolation for low wages was putting the farming population, especially younger people, at risk of depression. Moreover, it noted that:

‘Rural areas often lack local services for people to access mental health information and that in many cases people won’t admit to suffering depression because they feel embarrassed about it’.

As rural communities face new challenges posed by Covid-19, they do so in the wake of ongoing anxieties and concerns, and on the cusp of others relating to the future of agriculture and food-related trade. Media reports again indicate the relationship between economic uncertainty and mental ill health, with the frequent use of terms such as ‘heartbreaking’ and specific references to ‘living on tenterhooks’ and ‘feeling a lot of stress and anxiety’. Again, there is potential risk that some companies are quietly capitalising on the situation whilst others teeter on the brink of collapse. Sector-based organisations are playing a crucial role in ensuring that mental health issues arising from the crisis are not forgotten. Farming Safety Foundation, the Farming Community Network, Farming Connect and You Are Not Alone are just some of the groups responding to the current crisis and highlighting the uncertainty and anxiety it is causing, as well as the reluctance of some farmers to acknowledge mental ill health issues. Nevertheless, they need support, resources and recognition, and the ‘voice’ of the countryside should be foregrounded to ensure the psychological challenges being faced by farming and rural communities are not forgotten.

If you or anyone you know is struggling right now there are lots of people who are ready, willing, and able to help. Here are just some of the UK-based organisations you can contact.

The Farming Community Network is a voluntary organisation and charity that supports farmers and families. They offer a dedicated health helpline.

The Farm Safety Foundation (Yellow Wellies) is a charity dedicated to supporting physical and mental wellbeing of farmers. They offer useful resources dedicated to mental health, and have produced a booklet on coping with the stress of COVID-19.

The YANA Project is a charity dedicated to promoting mental health awareness within the farming community.

The Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institute is farming’s oldest and largest support charity. They have a dedicated helpline and special resources in response to Covid-19. The MERL is home to the RABI archive.

Mind is a national charity offering information and support on living with mental health problems. They have also produced specific Covid-19 advice.

Finally, if you found this post useful you may also be interested in our online exhibition about Wellbeing and the Countryside, or in this recent post where our curator explores how the farming community comes together in agricultural shows and is moving online in response to Covid-19.

Dr Sarah Holland is an Assistant Professor at the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on rural communities and rural health histories. Her forthcoming book chapter, ’Narrating and navigating patient experiences of farm work in English psychiatric institutions, 1845-1914’ in J. Meyer and A. Hanley (eds), Patient Voices in Britain, 1860-1948: Historical and Policy Perspectives, examines how patients narrated and navigated their experiences of farm work in English psychiatric institutions. Her book, Farming, Psychiatry and Rural Society: Asylum and Hospital Farms, England, 1845-1955 is due to be published with Routledge in early 2022.

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