That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with counsellor and psychotherapist, Mandy Downes, Blessington, Co. Wicklow.
“My father, grandfather and great-grandfather all farmed the same land and I have some wonderful childhood memories of farming.
Sadly, when my father passed away many years ago as a young man, that was the end of our farm.
It is bittersweet, really, if I am honest; as I sit at my kitchen table, I can see the fields my father farmed, the fields my siblings and I played in, the shortcut we used to take to the local shop, school, and mass in Manor Kilbride.
However, I am delighted that my grandchildren have been born into a farming family, with one grandson, in particular, showing a genuine passion for cows and the land.
He can tell the difference between a Massey Ferguson and a John Deere a mile away, and he is only 3-years-old.
I started my first paid job at 12, washing hair, sweeping floors, and making tea in a salon every Saturday.
Back then, you could work at 12-years-old. I worked in a sweet shop and a cinema before entering the bank.
Counselling is very much a journey of life-long learning. I began my counselling studies in 2010 in Dublin, and I am currently doing a master’s degree in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) at PCI College Dublin.
I am a fully accredited counsellor with the Association of Professional Counsellors and Psychotherapists of Ireland (APCP).
Counselling, as a profession, is taking great strides forward. CBT has moved into its third wave; we have come a long way from Freud.
I suppose I found myself in the carer’s role from a very young age, family dynamics maybe, and as cliché, as it might sound, family and friends saw the counsellor in me long before I did.
When I was introduced to the works of Dr William Glasser, founder of Choice Theory/Reality Therapy, one of the cornerstones of modern counselling practice, I was hooked and knew it was for me.
I was living a choice theory/reality therapy life and did not know it was a ‘thing’.
Counselling was the only career I consciously pursued; however, my background is in banking and finance and education.
Both of which I thoroughly enjoyed were invaluable in moulding me into the person I am today, and I made life-long friendships, something I value greatly.
I am passionate about mental health across all sectors for all people. However, as I am living and working in West Wicklow, with farming all around me, I can see just how important it is to provide counselling services to this sector.
I spent my formative years on the farm, and I feel privileged to work and live among the farming community now.
Farming in Ireland
I see first-hand the work they do; it is endless, being 24/7, 365 days a year.
I believe farming is the cornerstone on which Ireland was built, yet it seems to be forgotten by so many as we pour milk into our tea, enjoy a slice of apple tart and cream or tuck into a bowl of stew.
Most items on our kitchen table, such as cereals, bread, butter, milk, cheese, rashers, sausages, ham, and beef, are only possible thanks to the arduous labour of our farmers.
I believe our farmers are forgotten and certainly undervalued.
It is this feeling of being forgotten, undervalued, and isolated that can impact negatively on the mental, emotional and physical health of our farmers.
Poor mental health does not just stay in our heads; it passes through the whole body, causing poor emotional and physical pain too.
Only a few weeks ago, I was woken at 5 am in the morning by the sound of an engine; I had no idea what was happening.
I looked out the window only to see my neighbour out in his tractor, floodlights lighting up the sky and him harvesting his fields.
It struck me that it can be a lonely and, for some, an isolating existence.
When we look at the food chain, for example, farming and farmers are the backbone of every aspect of it.
Yet I believe the actual toll on our farmers and on their whole health, mind, body, and soul goes unrecognised.
Farmers do not get the option to not milk the cows, or not plough the field, or not shear the sheep. There is no closing the gate on Friday at 5 pm until Monday at 9 am.
Blessington Counselling and Psychotherapy
Currently, I run my own private practice, Blessington Counselling and Psychotherapy, here in West Wicklow.
I offer a professional, confidential counselling service in a private setting for individuals, couples and families. Most of my counselling is in person, and I also provide online and phone therapy.
I cannot think of an issue that has not crossed my door. I support people with a range of issues, from bereavement, grief and loss to loneliness, isolation, addiction, suicidal ideation, emotional, sexual or financial abuse, and relationship/family issues.
Most people present with stress, anxiety or depression, but it is the underlying causes of these symptoms where the work is done.
I see clients from all walks of life, backgrounds and ages – carers, doctors, lawyers, guards, teachers, students, athletes, stay-at-home parents, retired people, and farmers.
In my experience, we can all benefit from counselling at some points or junctures in our life, so I do not have a particular target market.
I am open-minded, inclusive and caring, and my door is open to everyone.
As a general rule, I adopt a ‘solution-focused’ approach to counselling with the client at the centre of that process.
It is important that the client gets the best possible service, and different approaches work for different people.
As an Integrative counsellor and psychotherapist, I draw on several modalities that best support my clients.
Growing up watching Lassie and One Man and his Dog, I saw first-hand the therapeutic benefits of owning a dog.
Since time began, pets have been a source of comfort and support for people.
Just gently rubbing a cat or dog can relieve stress, tension, anxiety and help cope with loneliness and isolation, not to mention a sense of security.
Dogs, in particular, have a great sense of when something is wrong and can demonstrate empathy. They will sit at your feet until they are happy that you are safe and OK.
Definitely, since Covid-19, there has been an interest in an interest in my services.
There seems to be a huge issue with poor mental health across the generations. I believe we are on the cusp of an epidemic up and down the country.
12–24-year-old’s school/college attendance is down, with some as young as 12 not attending at all.
Higher than ever numbers of parents are seeking support for their children.
25–55-year-olds are overstretched financially with rent/mortgages, cost of living, rearing children, and the over-55s are struggling to support themselves while supporting ageing parents/relatives and helping with the younger generation.
Lockdown, I believe, left the farming community, in particular, very isolated and vulnerable.
For a lot of farmers, the local pub was more than just a place to go to have a pint; some farmers would go to the pub even if they did not drink.
It was part of community life where they could meet their neighbours, get the daily goings-on, maybe have some food, listen to a bit of music or play a game of cards.
That outlet was stopped overnight with no adjustment time. When as a direct result of Covid 19, marts had to shut down, another social outlet for farmers was gone overnight.
Then there was the added pressure of buying and selling livestock. Livestock marts went online, and while the young farmers adjusted quickly, it left some members of the older farming community struggling with new platforms and dealing with poor-quality broadband in isolated areas of the country.
Covid, as we know, brought many deaths to the farming community. The ritual of burying a loved one, neighbour or friend was also changed overnight.
The Irish wake, a very important part of the farming tradition, was an opportunity to pay your respects to the family of the deceased, reminisce about old times and come together to support each other; this all changed due to Covid-19.
Some farmers I spoke to were so terrified of catching the disease; they literally saw or spoke to no one for months.
Poor mental health
Poor mental health has no boundaries; it crosses all cultures, creeds, and ethnic groups, and it can strike anyone at any time.
At some stage in everyone’s life, they will experience a bout of poor mental health.
This can range from mild to moderate to severe. Unfortunately, in some sectors of society, there seems to still be a stigma around poor mental health and getting help.
This, I feel, is very much the case in the farming community, and I believe it is stopping many farmers from seeking out the support they need.
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