Ag Mental Health Week: The power of disconnecting
Peter & Paula Hynes are dairy farmers from County Cork, Ireland. In 2020, the couple founded #AgMentalHealthWeek to raise awareness of mental health issues prevalent in agriculture. Peter and Paula join the Ag Future podcast to discuss this year's theme of intentionally disconnecting from our devices and the farm.
The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Peter and Paula Hynes hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.
Tom: I'm Tom Martin with another Ag Future Podcast. And joining us from County Cork, Ireland are Pete and Paula Hynes, full-time dairy farmers and founders of Ag Mental Health Week, set this year for October 10-16. And of course, the mental health of farmers is a year-round concern, but it does help to stop, take a deep breath and focus on taking an honest-to-goodness vacation from it all, including from those devices that we carry around with us. Good to have you back, Pete and Paula.
Paula: Thanks for having us.
Pete: …to chat to you, Tom.
Tom: You bet.
Pete: Thanks for having us on the podcast.
Tom: You bet. And if you could just a brief bit of background on Ag Health Week, if you would, what inspired you all to establish this special week?
Pete: So, Ag Mental Health Week is a global awareness campaign to bring the ag sector together as one and create awareness around mental health across the agricultural sector through ag companies to farm level, and vet research and beyond – and, I suppose, highlight the support services that are there. We founded it in 2020 after a conversation between myself and Paula. We were having conversation just after Farm Safety Week in Ireland, and the thought occurred us that tragically we lose more farmers to suicide than we do farm accidents, and there's no specific global awareness campaign for mental health. We decided to start Ag Mental Health Week in 2020, and we're into our third year now.
Tom: Would you say that the ag community is beginning to kind of come around to recognition that this is a pretty pervasive problem?
Pete: Yeah, I think 100%. There's a lot more awareness there. And people are very proactive in, I guess, supporting mental health and mental health awareness and suicide awareness in agriculture. And just taking Ireland into context there, there are two huge research studies going on at the moment. One in UCD Ag and one in DCU in Dublin, and both looking at, I guess, the challenges that face farmers. But also, ultimately, those research studies have to come up with solutions as to how we can improve awareness, how we can ask farmers to seek support, etc.
Tom: Well, we'll really look forward to seeing those and talking about them. I know that your focus this year is a really challenging one, and that is disconnecting from social media. To take the time to just relax to, heaven forbid, enjoy the company of others. To take a true vacation. What inspired this theme?
Paula: We were at the stage that even when we were sitting down at the kitchen table having our dinner, me, Pete, and the kids would be on the phones flicking through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. And you know, it actually takes an awful amount of time. And I just felt at home especially that there was no more conversation. We were actually at the stage where I could be in the sunroom and the kids could be in the sitting room and they'd send me a text instead of coming out to have an actual conversation or to ask me the question.
Tom: That's so familiar. And you definitely take your work with you. I can hear it in the background. It's really great.
Paula: Yeah. Always.
Tom: So you guys took a vacation, went to France as I understand it.
Paula: We did. It was a very quick short break, a three-day break, but it was, it was better than nothing.
Tom: Well, were you able to unplug?
Paula: Not 100% because the kids were at home, so we would have just checked in with them daily. That's it really. We might have Googled if we needed to find a particular spot, we would have put it into Google Maps to find our way, but other than that, we didn't post, you know, we weren't posting much about what we were doing or where we were going. We just kind of decided that it was time for ourselves, just the two of us to spend some quality time together. Because even though we work together, we were constantly passing each other all day on the farm. You know, we wouldn't spend quality time together as much.
Tom: I just got back from about a four-day trip away, and we couldn't help noticing as we pass through the airports that just about everybody we saw had their heads bent, focused on that device. It was almost surreal. And this conversation that we're having is kind of an opportunity to stop that for at least a moment and think about what we're doing to ourselves.
First, what are the effects, do you think, to mental well-being of being so glued to social media and those devices?
Pete: I think ultimately social media can be -- it can be an amazing place, but it can also be, you know – I guess I've already fast forwarded and in some places a very negative space as well. And when you spend so much time on social media, you forget to actually look at what's happening around you and I guess forget to chat to the people that are around you. I think it can also cloud your judgment at times. And it's kind of ironic that we're talking about not spending time on social media when we're running a global awareness campaign that is on social media.
But I think something that myself and Paula really, really learned in the last 12 months is: life is so hectic. And like we were away last in November, 2021. And again, we went away for a brief sun holiday. And again, we were in Paris in April and in late August. And I think we really realized that, you know, when we go away, it's about enjoying time together and not having to share that with the whole world. I think it's about taking space for ourselves. For everyone, life is so busy that it's about just stopping and enjoying the space that you have.
Tom: So, for those of us who do find ourselves constantly checking that smartphone — and again, on that trip that we took, whale watching, in between whales, everybody in the boat went back to their smartphones. And so, I'm just wondering now, in the context of what we're talking about, (if) you have a vacation coming up, you know it's coming the end of the week. How do you start disconnecting or weaning yourself from that device and tell yourself, ‘OK, it's time to unplug’? It takes a lot of discipline, doesn't it?
Paula: For me, it's just a very conscious decision that it's something that has to be done. Like, we would have a big following on social media and we use it a lot for promoting things for companies and stuff we'd be working with. But you know, on the run up to or even the day we're going, I'd put out something, say “out of the office” for a few days, because on the other side of it, you know, you have people following andif you do vanish all of a sudden as well, people would be messages going, "God, are you OK?" There is the advantage of it, but you know, so that's why I'd always put up saying “Oh, we’re going out of the office or taking a few days.”
But for me, it's just a conscious decision because, for me personally, when I'm at home, I'm constantly watching my clock between doing the cows in the morning (and)one of our daughters never got a bus ticket this year for the school bus, so now, I have to drive her to school and then I have to come back and be organized to get my younger daughter to school.
So I'm constantly watching the clock every day all day because then the two girls have to be picked up and then our other daughter has to be dropped and collected from work. So for me, it's so lovely – even if it's only three days – just to go and do nothing and not watch the clock, and have just “me” time. And if I want to sit down and have a coffee for two hours, I can do it, whereas I can't do that at home. And it's nice to just forget about the phone. For me, it's easy to switch off from it.
Pete: I think for me, I find at times I have to structure my time ormy week. And just take this week, for example, now like we're busy on the farm all day. We're preparing animals for a big dairy show here in a couple of weeks. Then in the evening, I have a lot of articles to write for the paper. I have a lot of emails to catch up on for Ag Mental Health Week and a few other bits. And I made a conscious decision at the start of the week that I would work Monday evening, Tuesday evening, and Wednesday evening, but I needed to clear my desk because Thursday evening was space for me and space trying to have time with Paula and sit down and watch a movie or whatever.
So, it's about just adding a bit of planning on a daily basis there. Like when I go home in the evening, I won't answer the phone unless it's really, really important. And when we sit down to watch a film, I'm not going to check emails or check to see what's happening on Twitter, etc., and try and take space from it. But it does take discipline, I do agree.
Tom: Well, we know that owning and managing a farm is a 24/7 laundry list of responsibilities.
So how long can you be away from your operation and feel comfortable about that? Would you say one week, even two, or is that just really stretching it?
Paula: Definitely for me, one week is enough. After a week, I'd start panicking about my ladies – my cows. I'm comfortable with a week, but after that, then I really do start panicking that things would be going wrong or, you know, if the person that's here didn't pick up the phone and tell me there was something wrong.
Tom: And how about that person who's there? How do you make sure the farm is fully managed while you're away so that you can try to truly enjoy the brief respite from all those demands?
Paula: When myself and Pete go away together, just the two of us, we're very, very lucky. We have our middle daughter, Becky. She's 15. She's a phenomenal farmer. She can actually run the farm on her own. She's brilliant. She knows everything inside and out, but we just have someone in to give her a hand. When we go away as a family, the person that would be left in charge,I'd have to know them really, really well and they would have had to been here numerous times with me milking in the parlor and getting to know the cows and everything, and the way things are done.
I couldn't ring up the Farm Relief Services and say, "Oh, I want someone for the week,” because I wouldn’t be able to relax. So, I'd have to know the person inside out and know that they'd respect the cows the way we respect them. Like the cows are, you know, at the end of the day, they're our work colleagues, so they're family. So that's the biggest challenge.
Tom: Well, you mentioned something there I wonder about. Is there actually a service that you can turn to or are we talking here about the possibility of a budding industry of being a farm manager on call?
Paula: There is a service available, but it's still extremely difficult to get somebody. Like even relief milkers for the weekends, it's getting harder and harder to get people. I suppose the younger generation doesn't seem to be that many of them wanting to go into ag because of the hours and the seven days a week. You know, I suppose some farmers paint a picture that you have to be there seven days a week, 24 hours a day. But at the end of the day, it's down to the individual and down to management. You know, it's vital that everyone gets time off the farm. So for us, we make it a priority regardless. You take a chance when you do leave a stranger in to run your farm, but like, I mean, it's vital that you do it.
Tom: Well, I've read that taking a vacation does increase your mindfulness. It makes you feel more present and stimulated. And how does this act of unplugging help you rest your mind?
Paula: Well, for me, it just totally recharges my batteries. Calving season is extremely busy from the end of January, February, March. We have a lot of cows calving and there's no time for anything. You're just here 24 hours a day. You're on-call at nighttime in case the cows need you. But for me, I'd have to have something to look forward to. Like we'd always take a break in April for our wedding anniversary. You just discipline yourself that you just have to take the time to recharge because you'll wear yourself out and you'll burn yourself out. And I'd get to the stage that I wouldn't be able to sleep and then, sure, I'm no good to anyone if I can't eat and sleep.
Tom: Well, you know, it seems as though I was mentioning before how as we pass through the airport, everybody seemed to be on their phones. And even in between events, as we did things on vacation, people turn back to their phones. Our devices have become integrated into the vacation experience. We use them to get information about things we wanna see and do, to get directions, make reservations. Did you forego all of those things or did you allow yourself to use them within limits when you were on vacation?
Pete: I think we obviously used them within limits. If I wanted to find something interesting to do, I Google it and — we just really found it interesting this year that when you limit yourself to maybe checking in at home or Googling something, then you can post all the photos of places you've been when you come home. And you actually meet really, really interesting people when you take the time away from the phone and have a conversation with somebody that's actually in front of you. We've met some amazing people this year, so it's been fun.
I think everyone needs their phone for something, whether it's the alarm clock or just checking where they want to go, or checking what time they have a reservation for something. So it's quite easy to do that. And I think likewise with Ag Mental Health Week this year, we do a lot of live streams on Facebook or we have an amazing panel of guests right through the week and right from across the sector that we'd be chatting to.
And even though they're live streamed, those videos will be there after. One of the big things we do in the week is Mile for Mental Well-Being where we encourage people to go out and run or walk a mile, and just get out in the fresh air, get a little bit of exercise. And I think a mile is — it's a nice distance for someone maybe that hasn't gone walking or running before that's quite easily achievable and we can fit it into any time of our day.
And you know, I’d actually much rather that somebody would go out and take that 10 minutes and go for a run or do Mile for Mental Well-Being than posting something on social media for Ag Mental Health Week, because they can tell us next week or the week after that they went and did the mile and the difference that it made to their day. And that's fine by me, but I think we really, really need to get the message across to people that we have to prioritize our mental well-being,especially in agriculture. Farming is a time-consuming job. It can be a highly stressful job.
And if we prioritize our mental well-being, it puts us in a stronger and a better position job when times are tough and times are busy. And like Paula was saying, when we're calving, it's such a demanding time of the year, in the spring, but we always have something planned for April so that we have something to look forward to and we know there's a break coming and a space for us again. When you can fit that into your life, it gives you something to work towards as opposed to just feeling that it's an endless daunting task of work after work after work.
Tom: I think that is really important to have something anchored out there in the near future that you're pulling yourself toward, . and you know, when you get there, you're going to get a break.
Pete: Going back to Mile for Mental Well-Being, whether you're a tillage farmer or a vet or even working inside in an office or on the road as a sales manager or a sales rep for an ag company, we can all do that mile. And it's possibly something that we should be doing more, doing a few times a week that you can pull up at lunchtime and you might have had a really stressful, stressful morning. And you can walk a lap in the field or find a nice place if you're on the road. Find a nice place just to stop for a quick cup of coffee and go for a quick walk. It just allows us space outside the work environment where we can clear our heads and think a lot fresher and come back with a fresh opinion on something after taking that time for ourselves.
Tom: Well, let's just say that that wonderful week away from it all has now come to an end. It's time to head back home, back to the 24/7. Have you learned to do anything to try to prolong the benefits of that breather even as you plunge back into work?
Pete: I think we realize the importance of having time together in the evenings and where we can at the weekends. We've been to a lot of agricultural shows this year with our daughters because they're showing livestock and Paula has been showing heifers as well, and [it’s] something we really enjoy as a family. And I guess, you know, doing things like that too takes us away from social media, the phones a bit as well, and gives us time to go out and enjoy life with the animals that we work with every day as well. Like myself and Paula go on date night regularly, and it's just the time to step out of the wellies and put on clean clothes, and go out into a different side of the world to what we walk in every day.
Tom: So important. What do you think about that, Paula?
Paula: I love date nights because like as I said earlier, even though we work together and we sleep together, we live together, it's rare that we'd actually have a full conversation. So for me, the date nights are great because I do some of my best thinking inside of the parlor, so I might have an idea for something. I just think when we're out having dinner together, I can kind of — when the phone is put away, it's then I can sit down and have the conversation with Pete. He can either say, "Yeah, we can try that," or "No, that's not a good idea," or whatever. But like at home, I forget about it because I'm always running and racing. For me, that's a great opportunity for us just to sit down and actually have a conversation and make a plan for the coming months.
Tom: Well, before I let you two go, I was wondering, are there certain resources that you can point our listeners to that they can go to for tips and pointers on how to navigate their way through some time off, away from those devices?
Pete: I think there's a phenomenal amount of resources across the world. Myself and Paula are ambassadors for Tackle Your Feelings. And if anyone Googles Tackle Your Feelings, there's a lot of tips and resources on their website that are, you know, no matter where you are in the world, they're going be relevant to you. During Ag Mental Health Week, we'll be posting mental well-being tips on all the social media platforms on a daily basis. And if anyone just uses the hashtag #AgMentalHealthWeek, they'll find a lot of stuff there on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
Tom: Yes, I did that. And that's exactly what happened. Pete and Paula Hynes, dairy farmers in County Cork, Ireland, founders of Ag Mental Health Week, set this year for October 10-26. Thank you both.
Paula: Thank you.
Pete: Thanks for having us on, Tom.
Tom: You bet. And for Ag Future, I'm Tom Martin. This has been Ag Future presented by Alltech. Thank you for joining us. Be sure to subscribe to Ag Future wherever you listen to podcasts.