ABP podcast puts farming community mental health in the spotlight

The newly appointed Interim Northern Ireland Mental Health Champion, Professor Siobhan O’Neill has said that the community spirit during the COVID-19 pandemic could be harnessed as we move to a new normal, so that we can continue to help one another.

Professor O’Neill was talking to Karen Patterson for a special podcast commissioned by agri-food business ABP, about the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on mental health. They were also joined by the Co. Londonderry farmer David Devine, who spoke openly about his own experience of poor mental health, and Chief Executive of Rural Support, Veronica Morris.

Professor O’Neill, who lives on a farm, said that lockdown has taken its toll. “We are social animals and we’ve lost that social integration. Isolation can cause stress and mental health problems. Farming families are often doing multiple jobs and looking after school children. We now need to attend to our mental health and ensure that people get the help they need.”

She emphasised her new role was about prevention as well as improving access to treatment. “We need to train up members of the public to be able to have conversations that can help each other. There are so many people within communities that can play a stronger role. We’ve seen so much of that during the pandemic. Let’s harness it.”

Professor O’Neill is encouraged by the renewed interest in key workers, “Farming families provide us with food. They should now be valued in a way they might not have been before. We appreciate our environment and outdoor spaces so hopefully farmers, as custodians of that space, are valued too. We’ve learnt the value of good health and the importance of caring for the vulnerable people in our community, We now appreciate more things that really are so important to us.”

35-year old David Devine shared his own experience with poor mental health to help  others recognise the signs. “If only I had known what to look for. I let it go on until it got to a stage that it probably was nearly irreversible. I was dying inside. I was putting a face on it and nobody had a clue. I was able to sing and dance at an arts festival but really didn’t want to go out of the house. It sounds cliched, but I finally said, ‘I need help’. The biggest step is recognising something is not right, taking a step back and asking for help.”

Chief Executive of Rural Support, Veronica Morris, said the organisation receives many calls from people in a similar situation to that which David found himself in, and praised his bravery for speaking up. “Despite mental health being somewhat taboo within the farming community, thankfully that is starting to change, as David has demonstrated. There are many things that people can do to help themselves, as well as various professional agencies out there that can walk with you through challenges with emotional and mental health, including Rural Support. All episodes of the Podcast are available to watch/listen in to at www.abpfoodgroup.com/about-us/podcast/  and You Tube.