Getting help doesn’t have to mean risking your firearms licence. The Gamekeepers Welfare Trust offers a helpline which is manned by nurses. And the GWT is encouraging people to keep an eye on their friends with its ‘Check-in With a Mate’ scheme.
Following years of covid and bird flu, Helen Benson of the Gamekeepers Welfare Trust says that conditions for people in the fieldsports community are hard. She says: “We thought that, after covid, things would settle down, but they didn’t.”
She says bird flu caused anxiety throughout the country – and that’s not the only difficulty facing country people. She says: “We’ve got a lot of pressure from the government and from DEFRA, with GL43 in England and in Wales with the gamebird releasing issue. In Scotland it’s the muirburn issue. It’s a lot of pressures for a lot of people.”
The GWT helpline is confidential, anonymous and operates outside the NHS, so nurses don’t pass on your name to government agencies.
Steve Stringer is a gamekeeper and ambassador for the scheme in Wales. His wife Sue is one of the nurses who works with the GWT, too.
The death of a gamekeeper in Devon recently highlighted the need for mental health support. Steve was a headkeeper on a big estate. He says: “The trouble is, with keepers, they’re not good at talking to people. We work alone quite often. We come home and don’t always talk to our family.”
He says the GWT is there to help on the end of the phone. He says: “They’ve got professionals you can talk to. It’s all anonymous. A lot of people are worried about health because of their shotguns.”
Steve says that, because of the risk of losing their firearms licences, it’s a big taboo. He says: “They’re keeping it bottled up. But we’ve all got mates. Talk to your mates.”
Shooter and ferreter Simon Whitehead speaks out about his own mental health struggles in his new book, due to be launched in the summer of 2023, which shares his journey working with ferrets. Simon says it’s important that people talk about mental health. He says: “Gamekeepers and shooters are worried about licenses and everything else.”
Simon says it’s vital that people check up on each other. He says: “Unfortunately, with the rising rates of suicide, depression and anxiety, people are struggling to cope.”
Data from the Office for National Statistics in 2018 indicated that more than one agricultural worker committed suicide each week in the UK. This makes it the highest risk occupation for suicide rates. There are more than 450,000 people working in the agricultural sector.
Simon says people tend to clam up and stay silent. He says: “It’s not until recently, with the help of therapy, I realised it takes more strength to say I’ve got a bit of a problem and I do need to to talk about it. And then a burden is lifted.”
According to a survey by the Samaritans, only 43% of men in rural areas said they would talk to someone compared to 51% of urban men, and 60% of rural women.
The Samaritans runs a campaign called Real People, Real Stories, supported by the NFU Mutual Charitable Trust, which aims to prevent men in rural communities from reaching crisis point.
Steve says the worst-case scenario is when people take their own lives. He says: “With some keepers I’ve met, you wouldn’t know there was a problem. The next thing you hear, unfortunately they’ve taken their lives. It’s such, such a waste, so sad. It has such an effect on the families too.”
Student farmer Len Eadon from Warwickshire took his own life on New Year’s Day 2022. His father, Andy Eadon, says: “We didn’t know he was struggling and no one, none of his friends did. He was a person who was there for everybody else.“
His family is raising money for help mental health charities in his memory. Andy says current figures show few people in the rural communities want to speak about their problems. He says: “I just want shooters or anybody in the rural community to feel they can talk to each other, share a problem. Because a problem shared is a problem halved.
In Wales, proposals to clamp down on shooting by licensing gamebird releasing is putting extra pressure on country people. They say shoots are a lifeline in winter. Shooting is its own therapy. Sheep farmer Mike Evans runs a small shoot in mid Wales. He says: “It’s what we look forward to all year.”
He says there is nothing like the thrill of the first day of the shoot. He says: “It’s brilliant. It’s what excites us and what gets us through it really does. Without it, it would be very sad.”
Welsh sheep farmer Eddie Field is a shooter and an angler. He says: “It’s a big part of your mental health. When I represented England as a kid fishing I had miles of where I could just pop down and fish. When I went to school out in Africa school work went to one side and it was just fishing.”
Eddie says he loves shooting and anything that gets him out into the countryside.
A new report by the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says rural mental health across England is an area of “considerable concern”.
Helen says the issue affects everyone. She says: “It affects the keepers themselves, it affects the communities, it affects the family. So, Check-in With a Mate is all about looking after yourselves, because we know when you talk to people it can help.”
She says that anyone who feels depressed should know that there are other people who feel the same, and sharing a problem helps to release the pressure. She says: “It helps to know that there are others who care.”
Steve says that younger people in the countryside is the group that has the greatest problems with mental health. He says: “It’s hard and everybody’s got to do their bit. Speak to their mates. Go share a coffee or tea. I know we’re busy – it’s a busy time of year – but we’ve all got five minutes.”
Andy says: “For my son’s sake I’d like everybody in the rural community to say safe, look after themselves and look after each other.”