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How life as a farmer left Chris Surgenor feeling lonely and suicidal

Chris Surgenor always wanted to farm but the NI man found himself feeling isolated, depressed and suicidal. Breaking the taboo in his industry about openly discussing mental health issues is vital, he tells Stephanie Bell

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Farmer Chris Surgenor

Farmer Chris Surgenor

Farmer Chris Surgenor

Farmer Chris Surgenor

Farmer Chris Surgenor

Working alone for 10 hours a day on a farm in England cut off from friends and family in Northern Ireland, Chris Surgenor succumbed to a deep depression.

Convinced that help was only available to people living in cities, he struggled alone with his illness for many months until he reached breaking point.

But after finally finding the courage to talk about how he was feeling just last year, he slowly started to heal and gradually turned his life around.

Today the 35-year-old is reaching out to other young farmers and people in rural areas who may be struggling with their mental health and urging them to talk.

Chris, who is from Kilkeel in Co Down and works on a farm in Essex, is lending his support to a campaign called Mind Your Head launched by the Farm Safety Foundation, aimed at raising awareness of the issues facing farmers as well as the link between farm safety and mental health.

As an indication of the scale of the problem, a survey revealed that 84% of farmers under the age of 40 believe that mental health is the biggest danger facing the industry today, and that 85% of young farmers believe there is a definite link between mental health and the overall safety of farms.

Farming is a stressful occupation these days. Not only do many of those working on the land spend a lot of time on their own, but the round-the-clock demands of the job mean the line between work and home life gets blurred. Add to that financial uncertainty, Brexit, changing consumer habits, and the implications of the climate crisis - and it all makes for a highly pressurised industry.

Chris has worked in the industry for many years and knows the challenges farm workers face. He courageously shares his story to encourage others to seek help.

"I grew up in the country although not in a farming family. For as long as I can remember I wanted to work on a farm. I couldn't get any secure work at home so in 2014 I uploaded my CV onto a farming recruitment site and got offered a job for harvest season on a farm in Essex," he explains.

Chris made such a good impression that a few months after he started working on the large arable farm, he was offered a full-time job as a sprayer driver and combine driver.

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His distinctive arm tattoo which reads: ‘Even in my weakest moments I know I’m strong because I survived’

His distinctive arm tattoo which reads: ‘Even in my weakest moments I know I’m strong because I survived’

Delighted, he seized the opportunity and for the next four years, life was good. He enjoyed his job and socialising with his girlfriend. But gradually he also became aware that something wasn't quite right.

As with many farmers, the issue of rural isolation started to become a massive factor, especially during busy seasons. Chris found himself on his tractor alone from 7.30am each day up to as late as midnight. He went for days without seeing his girlfriend and had no time for a social life.

"Farming can be such a lonely job," he says. "I'd spend up to 10 hours working alone and when you have so much time on your own, you tend to over-think. I'd worry about my family, I'd worry about my girlfriend and I'd worry about my friends.

I realised that I didn't actually have any friends in Essex

"People see a big shiny tractor in a field and they think the guy driving it is living the life while they are stuck in an office. But that tractor is our office and we don't have any co-workers sitting next to us to talk to. We don't have any social interaction at all.

"I realised that I didn't actually have any friends in Essex. It wasn't like home. I didn't have a social circle and I found it difficult going into a bar and striking up a conversation as I wasn't interested in the things they were talking about like money or football."

To make matters worse, Chris had shared a special bond with his grandmother back home in Kilkeel and her health started to deteriorate which caused him anxiety. Her death last year hit him particularly hard.

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Farmer Chris Surgenor

Farmer Chris Surgenor

Chris' girlfriend noticed that he was starting to become more distant towards the end of 2018, but he continued to put a brave face on things. He didn't share how he felt because he didn't want to worry her, something that he now profoundly regrets.

I was so caught up in my own thoughts and my girlfriend felt sidelined

He reached his lowest ebb last February when his relationship broke down. Looking back, he believes it fell apart due to his depression and his unwillingness to admit that he was ill.

"She was so amazing and caring and I know she had her own concerns but I really believed that I had to 'man up', be strong and get on with it. I was so caught up in my own thoughts and my girlfriend felt sidelined. She had been so supportive of me for so long but I pushed her away. I have learnt that this is something that many depressed people do."

After the break-up Chris felt himself going down a slippery slope and reached a point when he began to believe that the only way out was to take his own life.

Everything came to a head one day when he was out on his tractor and broke down and cried. Realising he couldn't take any more, for the first time he spoke about how he was feeling. "I just stopped the tractor in the middle of the field, burst into floods of tears and realised I couldn't cope any longer," he says. "I went to the farm manager and asked for some time off. The boss was in his office and he called me in.

Taking my own life didn't scare me but the fact that I was comfortable with suicide did as at that time I felt it was the only way out

"I found myself talking about how I felt for the first time. He sat back in the office and just listened. At the end he pulled out his phone and rang his doctor who suggested that he bring me to the local hospital mental health unit.

"This was my lowest point. I had admitted I needed help because I had reached the stage when I felt what was the point? I wasn't fit to work. I had no girlfriend, no friends and I couldn't go home as everyone thought I was happy and successful as I hadn't told anyone how I was feeling.

"Taking my own life didn't scare me but the fact that I was comfortable with suicide did as at that time I felt it was the only way out."

Chris describes the road to recovery as "long and difficult" but today he is enjoying his work, knowing if he has a bad day that he can talk to colleagues or new friends he has made in his local pub.

He refused medication during his recovery and believes that talking was the single most effective medicine which has helped him to heal.

"I used to think suicide was my only option, but that all changed because I have talked about what I was going through," he says. "I've realised that people will listen and will help you.

"I also realise I don't have to be proud. People in the farming community tend to be proud and don't ask for help as it would make them look weak. There is a stigma around all of that.

"I'm enjoying farming again and now when I feel down I don't bottle it up. I know there are people around me in work and in my local pub who will listen and help me.

"If I am having a bad day I don't hide it and if I go into the local pub and the barman sees I am not myself he will pull me a pint on the house. Simple things like that make all the difference."

Chris now feels passionately about encouraging other young farmers or even young men in general who find themselves in a similar situation, to talk and share their feelings.

He adds: "NHS waiting times are slow but there is support there. I honestly never knew that there was help available for farmers and their loved ones.

"Now that I do know, I want to do something to help raise awareness of this help so that I can maybe help someone else, too.

"I've learned that pain, tough times and even depression are time-limited. No matter how horrible things have been in my life at times, things have always gotten better.

"So if you're experiencing a difficult time, don't be afraid to reach out for help. Things will get better. Hold on for just one more day. I promise things will get better."

‘Mind Your Head’ aims to encourage farmers

Stephanie Berkeley, manager of the Farm Safety Foundation, has also encouraged farmers to speak out and get help.

She said: "It is encouraging to see more discussions about mental health, more awareness of the various mental health conditions and more emphasis on the support available to the farming community. However, more still needs to be done.

"Whilst farmers are often culturally ill-equipped to discuss mental health issues, one of the most effective methods in combating stigma is talking about it. This is what we have been doing and will continue to push, especially during our Mind Your Head campaign.

"Let's be clear, this isn't someone else's responsibility, this is on our watch and, in these challenging times, it's down to each and every one of us to look out for our friends, colleagues, neighbours and ourselves."

Those seeking more information on how to tackle poor mental health in the industry can visit the Farm Safety Foundation's website at www.yellowwellies.org and on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, contact the Samaritans on 116 123, or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000

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