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Peter Hynes — Ag Mental Health Week

October 7, 2021
Peter and Paula Hynes

In 2020, Peter and Paula Hynes established Ag Mental Health Week to address mental health issues among farmers. 

Peter and Paula Hynes founded Ag Mental Health Week to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health within the ag community and highlight the importance of prioritizing mental well-being. Peter joins Ag Future to discuss his story, the stresses of farming and events planned for the week.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Peter Hynes hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Tom:                        We’re joined from County Cork, Ireland by Pete Hynes. Pete and his wife Paula are full-time dairy farmers, running 180 dairy cows on a grass-based system. The Hynes were named “Farmers of the year in 2017”; they serve as ambassadors for the #TacklYourFeelings campaign, and the couple has worked extensively to raise funds for charities since 2017. Pete, who also writes for the Irish Farming Independent, has struggled with depression and he says it has made him stronger and more determined to enjoy life by speaking about it publicly, realizing along the way how that has encouraged others to seek help. Welcome to Ag Future Pete.


Pete:                        Good afternoon, Tom. Lovely to be talking to you from Ireland, straight through to Kentucky.


Tom:                        All right. Well, it's been reported that you and Paula are always the first ones to raise your hands to create awareness around mental health within the ag sector. And that conversation about mental health hits close to home for you. And I wonder, before we go forward, if you could kind of set the scene for us by telling us about your own journey as a farmer coping with depression.


Pete:                        Yes. I suppose nearly 20 years ago now, I struggled with depression. At that time, I was working ridiculously long hours, and things got on top of me, and I left out my social life cold. I suppose, to cut a long story short, I hit a brick wall and lost all control of my feelings. Luckily enough for me, at the time, my wife eventually persuaded me to go to our doctor. And he put me in touch with a very, very good counselor, whom I visited regularly after (that), weekly, and walked through things. And I guess, in some ways, at that time, that was a huge challenge. It taught me to look after myself and my mental well-being a lot better.


                                 And it was something we hadn’t spoken about publicly until 2017. And I just mentioned something briefly on social media, and I got a message from a guy that night who was considering ending his own life. And just through talking to him about what I’ve gone through myself and keeping contact with him over the coming days and the coming weeks, he went and sought help. And he's really turned his life around since; he's got a new job, and he’s gotten married since.


                                I think, at that time, it just opened my eyes up, in a huge way, to the fact that I’m sharing my own story and chatting to those who were struggling in a similar way. It could really encourage people to seek help when they are in a dark place or really low or struggling with themselves. I guess that was, in some ways, how we started discussing mental health publicly.


Tom:                        How extensive are mental health issues among farmers?


Pete:                        I think it's a subject that the industry, as a whole, has really tackled in the last few years. Yet when you look at the statistics all around the world, the reality is that there's a 50% chance a farmer will struggle with their mental health if they're not prioritizing their mental well-being. That goes for all countries, from North America right across into Europe and into the Southern Hemisphere. Myself and Paula have spoken to college students in Kenya, where there’s a huge stigma around mental health — and yet, when you look at the statistics, they're very much the same (kind of statistics) as they are in Ireland.


                                 And I think, ultimately, what we need to do, as an industry — if we want to change the statistics long-term — is to engage with young farmers and get across the importance of looking after their mental well-being, because it's something that could really, really affect the industry and individual countries, depending on weather events or global markets or financials on farms, etc. So, all figures will go up and down from country to country. Globally, it's still a huge, huge issue that faces agriculture — and I guess (that is) because, also, it's an industry that is, in some ways, so isolated.


Tom:                       There is a broad spectrum of pressures on farmers. And I'm just wondering: What are some typical events or triggers that tend to cause mental health issues among farmers?


Pete:                         A lot of it really stems back down, at the end of it, to the financial pressure or family issues — and likewise, when you look at the financial pressures that affect farming, as I mentioned a minute ago, a global weather event can have a huge impact on crop losses or fodder shortages on farms, which could put a huge implication on the financials going forward. Likewise, global markets changing (can have an impact).


                                 So, there’s all those different issues that are impacting farmers. And I think even, when you look at it at the moment, climate change and, I think, the whole conversation around climate change puts a huge amount of stress on farmers for the simple fact that, if you look at how they farm across the world, every farmer is very, very conscious that we need to improve how we look after the environment and how we look after the climate. And one of the very first industries that is affected by climate change is agriculture and farmers and their incomes. And yet, with all the progressive work they do, they don’t get a whole pile of recognition for it, and they still feel like they’re getting the blame.


                                 So, when you look at it, a farmer feels like they're a young child inside the school that's constantly being scolded by the teacher and being told, “You're not doing well enough” and “You're not making any progress,” when the reality is, like, those farmers — we’re the school child that is trying our damndest, and we're improving every day. And we can see the impact we're having, yet we're getting no recognition for it.


Tom:                        How is the ag industry, as a whole, doing in the area of mental health? Has stigma kept farmers from confronting mental health issues?


Pete:                         I think, as the conversation has opened up — and there’s been some phenomenal people around the world campaigning for better mental health awareness in the U.S., Canada, right across Ireland, the U.K., and in the Southern Hemisphere — it has opened up the conversation a lot. But likewise, I think there’s where, probably, one of the biggest issues is; there’s still a huge stigma around the discussion of suicide in the agriculture industry.


                                 And I think the reality is (that) if we, as an industry, cannot openly discuss suicide, well then, someone that's at a really, really low point and having suicidal thoughts is not going to feel comfortable about opening up and saying, “Yeah, look, I am thinking of ending my life, and I really, really need help.” And I think we need to make those people in that position feel so comfortable about saying it publicly and removing the stigma around that area. I think that would have a huge, huge impact on the figures at the moment.


Tom:                        You mentioned climate change. I'm wondering if the pandemic has impacted your sense of mental well-being, and do you hear from others who are experiencing these feelings?


Pete:                        I think agriculture, in a way, can take a lot of positives from the global pandemic in that, all of a sudden, it brought a huge emphasis on the importance of quality food and global markets really, really straightforward during the pandemic — but then the negative side of it was that so many events that farmers would normally attend were canceled. Farmers are used to working in isolation for long periods of time. But then, when they do get down, they like to attend sporting events or big agricultural events. And when so many of those were canceled, I think it has had a huge impact on farmers.


                                But likewise, I think it’s had a huge impact on young people across the world, losing the communication and the avenues where they could meet up from week to week and socialize. And I think it's probably brought a bigger emphasis on the importance for us all to look out for each other and try to stay in contact in some way.


Tom:                        In 2020, you and Paula established Ag Mental Health Week. What inspired you to create this initiative?


Pete:                        Myself and Paula were having a conversation at the kitchen table one evening discussing Farm Safety Week, which is run in Ireland and the U.K. And at that time, when you look at it, the statistics show, tragically, (that) we lose more farmers to suicide than we do to farm accidents. And we have a specific Farm Safety Week, but we have no specific week for mental health and agriculture globally.


                                 And we felt it was certainly a conversation that was far bigger than Ireland. And if we, as an industry, wanted to make a real difference, we needed to have a united voice across the world, which is why we came up with the concept of Ag Mental Health Week as a global mental health awareness campaign for the agricultural industry.


                                 And at that time, we looked at the calendar, and we felt, with World Mental Health Day being on the 10th of October, that there was probably no more fitting day to kick the week off and run it for seven days straight, because I have seen some campaigns run for five days of the week. Farming is a seven-day-a-week job. And I think, with an awareness campaign, we would need to recognize that first, which is why we decided to run it for seven days straight with the campaign.


                                 And we’re absolutely astounded and humbled by the reaction to Ag Mental Health Week in 2020. It had surpassed anything that we thought it could do in the first year. And (we) always felt that it was something that we certainly couldn't do on our own, to drive the campaign forward, which is why we put together a global working group of like-minded people, from farmers to people in the ag industry, and just put our heads together (to) see how we could drive the week forward into 2021.


Tom:                        It really expanded quickly globally, didn’t it? And I wonder if you could tell us about the partnerships and the resources that have since come to the table.


Pete:                        Yes. So, I think, if you — just going back to 2020, we had environment ambassadors from 11 countries around the world. We had panel discussions involving six countries. And given the amount of work that had gone into running the week, we spoke to people in your own good company, Alltech, and people who we’d been in contact (with) for Ag Mental Health Week in 2020 as well. And we also spoke to friends of ours in the Zurich Z Foundation in Switzerland and CEMEX Global Alliance. And I think there were very like-minded companies that were really passionate about prioritizing (not only) mental well-being for their employees but for the sector as a whole. And we also contacted a lot of farmers in the U.K. and the Southern Hemisphere and started up a working group of, I suppose, in some ways, how we could expand the conversation and broaden the horizons and the reach of it.


                                So, this year, we have panelists from, I would say, eight different countries. We’re really focusing on young farmers for research. And we’ll also be having discussions with politicians around the world, because I think it's probably very important that politicians and the agricultural sector are involved in the conversation from the point of view — having a better understanding of how policy can affect the mental health of farmers is going to be huge; (it will be) positive, going forward, when they realize that a decision made within a government is going to impact farmers on the ground. And I think politicians are very welcoming of that and very understanding and realize the importance of changing, I suppose, the culture and changing your mindset within the agricultural industry, that we do need to prioritize our mental well-being.


Tom:                        We'll have some more details on Ag Mental Health Week in a few moments, but I want to circle back to several things that you brought up. You have noted that the statistics out there show that we lose more farmers to suicide than we do to farm accidents. So, you've touched on this earlier, but I wonder if you could tell us: How are you addressing suicide?


Pete:                        I think there's a number of people around the world that are very, very open (to) the concept of discussing (this topic) publicly and have made a huge, huge impact in their own areas over the last number of years. Emma Picton-Jones, who lives in Wales, she lost her husband to suicide. And she set up the DPJ Foundation in Wales, which has opened up the conversation there. And I’ve spoken to Emma a number of times, and she will actually be a guest on one of our panel discussions during Ag Mental Health Week. She’s always stressed to me the importance of us being willing to talk about it publicly.


                                She said, even after she lost her husband, people were very slow to approach her, because they knew the background of her loss. And she said that was nearly harder for her, but also, she could understand it from the point of view of her husband not being willing to say that he had those feelings. And Cathal McCormack, from Alltech in Ireland, linked up with her last year and has since organized training for a lot of Alltech staff with her around mental health first aid training. And I think initiatives like that are so important, because farmers are isolated. If someone from the ag industry drives into the heart and they can spot the signs of a farmer who is really, really struggling and ask the right questions to try and get them to open up, I think there's so much more we can do. I think we need to make people who are feeling suicidal feel a lot more comfortable to discuss it openly with us.


Tom:                        Pete, do you feel that enough work is being done among young farmers, even on the campuses of ag colleges and universities, to prepare a new generation for the mental pressures and the challenges of farming?


Pete:                        The reality is, I don't think we're doing enough. I don't think we’re putting enough emphasis on encouraging young farmers to prioritize their mental well-being.


                                 If you look at a lot of the agricultural colleges, they have specific courses on farm safety and teaching young farmers the dangers of pesticides and showing them how to handle them correctly. Likewise, (there are courses on) the dangers of quad bikes, the importance of wearing a helmet. And I think we need to have the same modules built into those agriculture courses where we're teaching young farmers the basics of looking after their mental well-being on a daily basis, because the reality is, when you enter agriculture as a career, you are going to be put in times of stress and times of crisis, but when you're prioritizing your mental well-being, you're putting yourself in a far stronger position to deal with those challenges and overcome them. And also, realizing the importance of taking time out after busy periods on farms, like harvest and calving and setting in the springtime, etc.


Tom:                        Pete, what do you and Paula do to keep your mental compasses pointed in the right direction? How do you, as both business partners and husband and wife, manage the stresses of farming?


Pete:                        I think we just do simple things, like, you know, eating well, taking breaks, taking time out, discussing the challenges with each other and not bottling things up inside. Like calving — for us, we’re spring calving herds, so we have all our cows in a short space of time in the springtime, which is extremely busy; there’s no time off-farm. But we try and take a break prior to calving. We try and ensure that we’ve [0:18:15][Inaudible] so that we're getting adequate sleep while calving is busy. And also, we set in place time out for ourselves after calving so that we get to recharge the batteries and get away and enjoy life a bit. And I think that is vital.


                                 I guess one of the other things we do as a couple is we ensure that we go out on a date night at least once a month so that we have something to look forward to, with different surroundings, different conversation. When you’re busy, it gives you something to look forward to. And I think that’s all vital, that you know that there’s an end in sight from the busy period.


Tom:                        What would you like to see happen in the ag industry toward helping farmers cope with mental health issues?


Pete:                        I think one of the big things we really need to do as an industry — and I spoke heavily about this last year — is put crisis numbers on the back of all vehicles that are entering a farmyard, be it trucks, vans, etc., so that when a farmer who is struggling or feeling suicidal sees that number directly in front of them and knows what number to dial to get help in crisis. And I think even the simple message from putting those numbers on the back of vehicles entering farms (is important). And, in many ways, it’s the industry as a whole — be it milk processors, etc. — it’s the whole industry standing up and saying, “It's okay to seek help if you're feeling suicidal.” And I think that's one of the simplest or one of the biggest things we could do as an industry. And I've seen it work very, very well in some areas, but I think the whole industry needs to embrace it, because I think that could be a game changer in the short term.


Tom:                        Ag Mental Health Week 2021 is coming up, (on) October 10–16. And what sorts of events and resources will be offered?


Pete:                        So, we’ll be running seven nights of panel discussions, which we will livestream on our Facebook page at Ag Mental Health Week. The first evening, we’ll have young farmers on. So, we have a young farmer from Australia, a young farmer from Ireland, and I also think we have a young farmer from North America. The second night, we will be having two politicians on: Minister Martin Heydon from Ireland and Minister Bloyce Thompson from Canada.


                                 And we’ll be having discussions with doctors and GPs that week, with support services with the ag industry. We’ll also be having a specific panel discussion with veterinary surgeons. Lizzie Lockett, the CEO of the RCVS in the U.K., is chairing that panel discussion. And we’ll also be talking to families who have lost loved ones to suicide or had family members struggle with their mental health, just discussing how that has impacted the family as a whole. So, those panel discussions will be one of the key things. We’ll also have daily tips on how to prioritize your mental well-being on our social media channels.


                                 And then, on the 13th of October, we are pushing Mile for Mental Well-Being. So, we want as many people in the ag industry across the world to get out and run or walk a mile that day just to highlight the importance of prioritizing your mental well-being but also just taking that space, for maybe 10 or 15 minutes in the day, to clear your head and focus on something other than being at work all the time. We’ll also be encouraging as many sports services and charities around the world to run their own events during Ag Mental Health Week. And we’d be really keen to promote those for the support services. And I know there’ll be many more events planned during the year or during the week.


                                The response last year was phenomenal. The media were very, very good to get behind us and open up the conversation. So, we hope they’ll do the same again this year. So, we’re looking forward for the week.


Tom:                        All right. We’ve been joined from County Cork, Ireland, by dairy farmer Pete Hynes, co-founder — with his wife, Paula — of Ag Mental Health Week. Look for it on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For Ag Future, I'm Tom Martin. Thanks for listening, and thanks for joining us, Pete.


Pete:                       Thanks again, Tom. Wonderful to chat you up.


Tom:                      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.