Country Matters: Everyday story of stressed-out folk

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The Independent Online
MORE than 250 delegates were at the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh, Warwickshire on Monday for a conference on rural stress. The fact that so many people gave up the day to attend, and that the meeting was chaired by no less a figure than the Duke of Westminster, indicated the seriousness of the proceedings.

As the Duke remarked in his opening address, the event could not have taken place five years ago. Stress among farmers was not recognised as a problem until the Nineties, when high suicide rates have drawn national attention to the fact that all is not well in the countryside.

Of many disturbing images presented to the delegates, none spoke more eloquently than a colour slide shown by John Wynn Jones, a Welsh GP, of a Gainsborough painting: Mr and Mrs Andrews seated at the edge of a cornfield in all their 18th-century finery; around them, sheaves stand piled in stooks on the golden stubble, and the scene is suffused with the golden glow of autumn.

This idealised view of the English countryside as an Arcadian landscape in which all is sweetness, soft light, fruitfulness and serenity still prevails among many townspeople and in the pages of certain glossy magazines. At the end of the 20th century, the conference stressed, rural life bears little relation to that idyll. As one delegate, a farmer's wife, put it, the thrust of the whole meeting was 'anti-nostalgia'.

One speaker after another referred to the suicide-rate among farmers, which is running at nearly twice the national average. It tends to be highest in areas where the land offers a poor return - the hills of the West Country, Wales and the Borders in the north - but even parts of East Anglia are also bad.

Peter Jones, a psychiatrist, pointed out that suicides represent only the small, visible peak of an enormous iceberg of stress, most of which lies undetected beneath the surface of good behaviour. The principal causes of worry were neatly summed up by one farmer as 'the three Ls - loneliness, letterbox and legislation'.

Loneliness is clearly a hazard for men who live in the country, particularly if their wives go out to work, as more and more do in order to make ends meet. The letterbox may bring horrors from many hands - not least tax inspectors and bank managers. And as for new legislation, the outpouring of immensely complicated documents from the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food is enough to strike fear into the stoutest heart. Take, for example, The Integrated Administration and Control System 1994, which has just flattened our own doormat. It runs to 78 pages and orders the recipient to make a full return ('You must state . . . You must show . . .') of how every field is being used.

Numerous other pressures bear down, not least the relentless grind of work. Dairy farmers, in particular, are slaves to routine: they must milk the cows twice a day, 365 days a year, come what may. Many men are working 15 hours a day.

Psychological pressures increase the burden. After major scares such as those over salmonella in eggs and BSE, many farmers feel that they are disliked by the public. Even the Government's set-aside schemes cause anxiety: men are shamed by the scruffy appearance of fields left uncultivated, and by the suggestion that they are being paid not to use the land productively.

If things become too much, and a farmer does decide to end his life, he has plenty of means to choose from. Of the 526 who committed suicide between 1979 and 1990, more than 200 shot themselves, 145 hanged themselves, 91 gassed themselves in cars, 25 took poison and 19 drowned. (During the same period, in contrast, only 35 vets took their own lives.)

Along with these grim statistics the conference did have a certain amount of good news to report. In Herefordshire and Shropshire, branches of the Samaritans have combined with the Citizens' Advice Bureaux, the church, the National Farmers' Union and other local bodies to set up help groups and produce large numbers of cards offering free confidential support through a telephone helpline. .

An important discovery by those trying to open up communication is that families in trouble are extremely reluctant to talk about their problems. Suicide has always had a particular stigma, but many farming people feel that it is humiliating to discuss difficulties of any kind with strangers. In Shropshire, the pioneers of the help service realised that one way round this inhibition might be to address their message ostensibly to a third party. Their hand-out carries the message: 'Someone you know may need this card.'

No one believes more fervently in the value of help- lines than Clifford Evans, a Shropshire hill farmer. One of the conference's most eloquent speakers, he recalled that between April 1991 and May 1992, 27 rural people had killed themselves in his county, and that in the first four months of 1992 alone paramedical staff had been called out to 220

attempted suicides. In one dreadful incident a farmer returned from the bank with bad news, and, because he could not bear to make his four men redundant, shot his wife and then himself.

Mr Evans found that the whole subject of suicide was 'cloaked in silence', and families involved felt guilty and isolated. He determined to bring the matter into the open, and was instrumental in founding the group now known as the Shropshire Rural Isolation Project.

Since it came into existence, its staff have received several thousand calls, and coroner's figures suggest that the local death rate may have fallen slightly. But as concrete proof of the group's efficacy, Mr Evans cites the story of Brian, a farmer who had tried to take his own life. Ground down by a series of cruel blows, starting with the sudden death of his wife, this man tried to kill himself with a shotgun, but succeeded only in blowing off a large part of his face. Staggering from shock and injury, he walked a mile down to the Severn, determined to finish himself by drowning, and jumped in - only to float ashore, where he sat on the bank white with hoar frost.

Rescued, rushed to hospital, patched up by a plastic surgeon, nursed through depression first by members of his family and then by a young man from the infant Isolation Project, he made an amazing recovery. He is now 'on top of the world', with a new girl friend, and 'farming like blazes' - and his decision to allow his case to be publicised was, in Mr Evans's view, 'the bravest thing I have ever known.' Mr Evans is now campaigning to have stress officially recognised as a physical disorder, rather than as mental illness, in the hope of encouraging sufferers to come forward for treatment.

Over the past few months the pioneer work done in the West Country has spread to many other areas: another new organisation, started in Gloucestershire and known as Farmers' Friends, now has branches in 22 counties. The aim of Monday's conference was to produce a national strategy for dealing with rural stress; and, although there are no quick answers to be had, the event sharply raised the general level of awareness.