The late-night chat that saved a farmer's life

Ireland loses more farmers to suicide than to farm accidents. It's why #AgMentalHealthWeek is so important
The late-night chat that saved a farmer's life

Dairy farmer Peter Hynes at the family farm in Rathard, Aherla, Cork. Peter and his wife Paula set up #AgMentalHealthWeek which has already been very successful and will play a big role in October's national health campaign.

Peter Hynes, a dairy farmer in Co Cork set up Ag Mental Health Week with his wife Paula last year.

The event is all set to take place again this year and kicks off from October 10-16 next.

The seeds for Ag Mental Health Week were probably sown nearly 20 years ago when Peter first realised his mental health was being challenged.

For a number of months, he struggled with depression but after he reached out and sought the help he needed, everything changed for him.

When the family won the Farmer of the Year competition in 2017, Peter realised the importance of telling his own story so that other farmers who found their mental health compromised would know there was help available to them.

After the big win, he and Paula decided to hold an open day on their award-winning farm and raise some money for charity while they were at it.

The chosen charities included Breast Cancer Ireland and Aware, and it was at this point that Peter decided to share his own story.

“When I shared the story, farmers who were struggling with their own mental health started to reach out,” he said.

Peter Hynes with wife Paula and Georgina at the family farm in Rathard, Aheria, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins. 
Peter Hynes with wife Paula and Georgina at the family farm in Rathard, Aheria, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins. 

“I remember a suckler farmer from the west of Ireland contacted me; he was in the depths of despair and we chatted long into the night.

“We continued to talk for about two weeks and he overcame his difficulties.

“We became very good friends and he has since told me that the chat we had that first night saved his life.”

Meanwhile, Peter says that all too often, those working in the farming sector find it difficult to open up about their mental health difficulties.

“I have done a lot of work for charity now and with Farm Embrace I feel that we are raising a lot more awareness about mental health as a result,” he added.

Last year as Farm Safety Week began approaching Peter thought more about mental health and the struggles many farmers across the county were facing — in silence.

He said that Ireland loses more farmers to suicide than to farm accidents and that up to last year, there was no mental health awareness week and little access to services and supports as a result.

So, in 2020 his wife set about organising an event, and together the couple established Ag Mental Health Week.

“We were adamant from day one that it would be a global event because it is a message that needs to be shared by the whole farming community,” Peter added.

The couple was taken by surprise over the popularity of last year’s event and this year is expected to be even more successful because of how awareness has grown over the last 12 months.

Peter and Paula Hynes set up #AgMentalHealthWeek in 2020. The event runs this year from October 10-16. Picture: Larry Cummins. 
Peter and Paula Hynes set up #AgMentalHealthWeek in 2020. The event runs this year from October 10-16. Picture: Larry Cummins. 

But looking back now on that dark time almost 20 years ago, Peter says the stress and strain of everyday life had been building for a while before he realised that things were getting out of control in his mind.

He was working long hours, wasn’t married very long and his family was growing.

He found himself in a situation where his life was centred around “eating, sleeping and working”.

Then his eating habits changed; things started getting on top of him and he found it difficult to sleep.

“I was bringing a lot of stress home to Paula and before I knew it I was literally crying for absolutely no reason — whether I was at home or at work,” he said.

“I just lost control of everything. I still went to work every day but I wasn’t working as efficiently as I should have been.”

One day his wife asked him what was wrong. Peter brushed it off and said he was fine, but he wasn’t.

“I was trying to hide how I was really feeling from her and from my work colleagues.

“Eventually, Paula said to me that we were going to visit the family doctor in Ballincollig; she told me that things weren’t right and I needed to deal with that.

“I was lucky that she made that decision when she did because when I went to the doctor I didn’t really know what was wrong with me but I had to admit that something was wrong.

“The doctor understood where I was at and he was able to get me to open up to him; it was a huge thing for me to do.

“He advised me to get professional help and put me in contact with a fantastic counsellor in Mitchelstown.”

Peter committed to counselling but was full of anxiety before the first appointment.

“I was very nervous that first day; I had never been to counselling before and I didn’t know what to expect,” he continued.

“There was a part of me that didn’t want to talk and didn’t want to walk through that door to her but I did and within two minutes of walking in that door, I was at ease and began to talk.

“I was able to think about how I was feeling and began to understand myself more.

“She asked me if I was suicidal and I was able to tell her I wasn’t, which was true and I got great strength from realising that.”

Peter continued with the counselling once a week for a number of months thereafter. He also started talking to his wife and together they faced Peter’s difficulties.

“I began to see that home and family life was more important than work,” he added.

“When someone ends their life, as a society the people left behind get our compassion and our support but very often we avoid discussing the actual event, or what has happened.

“I think that if people are contemplating taking their own lives and we are not willing to talk about that in our daily lives, then the shame attached to how that person is feeling becomes very overwhelming for them.

“If they can’t say I am thinking about ending my life, that is a very difficult thing.

“And so, therefore, we need to change that; in fact, suicide was one of the issues that we discussed openly during Ag Mental Health Week last year.”

Peter says that while people are always going to struggle with mental health, the importance of smashing down the barriers around it cannot be overstated.

There is still stigma attached and we need to end that too,” he said.

“We need to open up the conversation so we do know what to say to people who have lost loved ones under those circumstances.

“All of this is a big part of mental health first aid training; but there needs to be more education around the whole area and we need to do that in schools as well.”

Ag Mental Health Week runs from October 10-16 and begins on World Mental Health Day.

Social media live streams will include speakers and experts from all over the world.

On October 10, young farmers Rachel McGrath, who manages a dairy herd in Australia, and Teagasc Scholarship participant Conor Hammersley will engage in a panel discussion, while the following evening Minister Martin Haydon and Canadian Agriculture Minister Bloyce Thompson will discuss health and wellbeing in the industry.

There will also be a number of GPs on hand to chat about the importance of farmers attending for an annual checkup and to openly chat to their doctor about how they are feeling.

Support service representatives and charities are also lending their support to proceedings as are industry experts on mental health.

Farm families bereaved by suicide will also partake in panel discussions.

Ag Mental Health Week is being supported by Alltech and the Zurich Foundation.

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