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More support needed for agricultural workers at risk of suicide, say experts

Farming and other agriculture-related professions have higher-than-average rates of depression.

By Zoë Grünewald

This week, the environment, food and rural affairs committee heard from medical professionals and charity representatives about suicide prevention for agricultural and veterinary workers as part of its ongoing inquiry into rural mental health.

During the session, experts spoke about the extent of suicide in rural areas, the difficulties of prevention and data collection, and the risk factors for individuals.

What is the extent of the problem?

The committee launched its inquiry in November 2021 by stating that “farming and other agriculture-related professions are known to face particular mental health challenges, with higher-than-average rates of depression and suicide”.

The then chair, former MP Neil Parish, said on launching the inquiry: “I’m a farmer myself and I know how people in our communities can sometimes suffer from isolation. That’s not to mention how insecure incomes, volatile weather and many other issues can be real stress factors.”

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Jacqui Morrissey, assistant director of research and influencing at the Samaritans charity, spoke about the specific risk of suicide for agricultural workers, pointing to a 2017 ONS study that found that the risk of death by suicide was 1.7 times higher for agricultural workers than for the general population. Morrissey acknowledged the need for more up-to-date statistics, but told the committee that “between 2011 and 2019, there were 813 people who work in agriculture who died from suicide”.

[See also: How we misunderstand depression]

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Why are agricultural and veterinary workers particularly vulnerable?

The panel pointed to a number of risk factors that make agricultural and veterinary workers particularly vulnerable to suicide. This included geographical and social isolation, stress and uncertainty, and finances and addiction, among others.

Jim McManus, executive director, public health at Hertfordshire County Council, also highlighted the trauma these communities can experience when working closely with unwell animals. “The level of trauma that vets come across… when an animal is dying is really quite severe,” he explained.  

The experts also pointed to the role that having access to drugs and firearms can play in causing higher suicide rates. “Having easy access… at that point or not can be the difference between life and death,” Morrissey said.   

What did experts recommend?

The experts recommended a raft of actions the government should consider in order to combat this public health issue.

Morrissey critiqued the current collection of data, explaining that, in its present form, it did not give an adequate picture to help fully identify individuals at risk. For example, she highlighted the need for more granular data collection, so policymakers have a better understanding about the experiences of “people in these occupations”. The experts also agreed that there needs to be more granular data on suicide risk factors, including socio-economic deprivation, gender, job security and so on.

Morrissey also emphasised the importance of ensuring data collection includes information about suicidal ideation and attempts. “Suicide data really only gives us part of that picture. It tells us about who’s dying. What it doesn’t tell us, and what’s also really important to understand, is more about those who have attempted suicide and those who have suicidal thoughts,” she explained.

Kate Miles, charity manager at the mental health farming charity the DPJ Foundation, deemed real-time surveillance of these issues “essential”, but also said it was key that services are equipped to “provide support” for the community and “to potentially alleviate any further adverse impact” after there has been a suspected death by suicide. The panel agreed that providing more support in the community after a suicide is important.

Miles also explained that data collection may not, in its current form, show the whole picture because agricultural and veterinary workers who have attempted suicide sometimes have additional job roles, such as builders or construction workers, so may be recorded in different categories. She explained that in some regions while there may be “community knowledge of deaths by suicide” the “official data doesn’t necessarily accord with that”.

[See also: It’s no surprise fathers need help with postnatal depression]

What happens next?

A committee spokesperson has told Spotlight that there will be one more evidence session for this inquiry, and the resulting report will be published later in the autumn.

Who can I contact on this issue?

Though the deadline for evidence submissions from the public passed in January, the committee has flagged a number of sources of support, including:

Samaritans – general support for everyone. Call 116 123 – 24 hours a day, every day; email  

Mind – for information, advice and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem. Call 0300 123 3393 

Citizens Advice – for independent, free advice, provided by a network of charities, online, by phone or in person. Covers a wide variety of issues including benefits, work, debt, housing, family and immigration. The advice line is available 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday – call 0800 144 8848

You can also read the transcripts of previous evidence sessions and the accompanying evidence here.

[See also: Depression without protest: the aftermath of Russia’s 2021 election]

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