In this week’s Career Focus series, That’s Farming, speaks to Finola Colgan, a development officer with Mental Health Ireland. We discuss mental health within the agricultural industry and the stigma created by a “lack of understanding and misconceptions”.
Although Finola does not necessarily hail from an agricultural background, it has led her on “a life journey” she never imagined she could take to get to where she is now.
She does not come from a traditional farming background. However, her father grew up on a farm, and her grandfather on her mother’s side also pursued an interest in farming.
However, her father went on to third-level education in the early forties, which severed his connection with farming.
Finola lives at Tullaghansleek Stud, Castletown Geoghegan, Mullingar Co. Westmeath with her husband, Timothy, and their seven children.
She told That’s Farming: “It is one of Ireland’s oldest privately family-owned stud farms, having been established in 1867 and is now in the hands of the seventh generation. I grew up in Lismore Co. Waterford, and I was born in Louth.”
“It is ironic that I should find myself involved in farming. My first full day on a farm was when I returned from our honeymoon. I was on a quick learning curve and have remained on it ever since,” she laughed.
She has had “varied” third-level education experiences, all of which have influenced her to some degree.
Finola’s primary degree was a BA in English history and psychology, followed by a diploma in higher education. Her ambition was to work as a secondary school teacher, to follow in her father’s footsteps.
“Soon after qualifying, I found myself in an interim post with the Health Services in Dublin. I liked it very much and found contentment in my work.”
This position gave Finola inherent opportunities for personal development, and she was successful in achieving several key promotions. “I refocused my career plans to become a teacher,” she added.
Finola left Dublin to commence work in Galway with the Western Health Board as a training officer. This post brought her back to education, training and learning at a different level.
When she was in Galway, she was accepted to do a postgraduate law degree – LL. B through part-time study, which she subsequently complimented a decade or so later with an LL.M.
She undertook these studies out of “pure interest in the legal world rather than possessing a divine need to work in the legal profession”.
Finola stated, “as an adult learner, you have such a different perspective on life and the people who lecture”.
“This insight has also informed me in my work with community groups, both NGOs and statutory agencies pursuing training and education on mental health matters.”
Mental Health Ireland
Finola’s current position is a development officer with Mental Health Ireland.
She is also a law lecturer at Athlone Institute of Technology, designated the Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest from October 1st.
“The beauty of these positions is that every day is like starting the first day at work. Each day and even an afternoon’s work offer new and exciting development opportunities through meeting and engaging new people and challenges.”
Her responsibilities include managing MHI’s CHO 8 regional offices that embrace Midland counties, Louth and Meath. She is also responsible for implementing its national strategy that focuses on promoting mental health and training.
“Living life well that is built on the recognition of the importance and respect to support people in their recovery from mental health challenges, engagement with mental health services and to respect their lived experiences.”
“Last but not least, organisational fitness, i.e., to ensure compliance with good governance in all that we undertook on behalf of MHI.”
Finola’s work is strategic as well as operational.
“It is about developing programmes and supports working as a team member to implement the key objectives of my organisation.”
A typical day in the life
Finola revealed there is no typical day, “especially since the onset of Covid and the requirement to work from home”.
“Zooming has been very much the order of a typical working day. Even though that is gradually changing with occasional face-to-face meetings and is indeed a welcome change.”
“Thankfully, it has not been a barrier to achieving work objectives and getting things done. In fact, it has generated the need to be more creative and a willingness to achieving outcomes through alternative means.”
MHI has, through strategic engagement via virtual platforms, learned to adapt its programmes and enterprise. “I am delighted to have been able to contribute to that process,” she added.
The past year and a half has been very rewarding for Fionola, and she felt privileged that she could maintain contact with people, community groups and colleagues.
“It has also been a great opportunity to efficiently and economically reach out to even more people and organisations.”
“To achieve in my role and commitment to work, it is very necessary to liaise and network with many voluntary, statutory and business to achieve our national objectives.”
“This can extend from engagement with local partnership companies, educational bodies, NGOs to farming organisations such as Teagasc, and more recently the Irish Men’s Shed.”
“One of the more interesting farming initiatives I have been involved with is the Irish Men’s Network, and their designated special focus group, ‘On Fheirm Ground’.”
“The group is currently exploring the establishment of a National Farm Health Alliance. I am thrilled to be a member of this organic growth.”
“Nationally, we have a development officer team that shares ideas, generates new initiatives, and ensures co-production within our work.”
Finola enjoys the opportunities for personal and professional development, delivering and co-designing mental health promotion and T4T programmes.
She takes pride in engaging with “many incredible and kind people that volunteer their time and energy to promoting mental health and supporting local projects”.
“Such people are very much part of our hidden productive Ireland, let it be rural, urban, or city.”
“There is hardly a town in my area of responsibility that I do not know someone who will always welcome me with a cup of tea and up for the chat. I feel blessed.”
Finola expressed that she has had many career opportunities and numerous highlights to date.
These include meeting with three presidents, beginning with Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, and our current president, Michael D Higgins, at a Gaisce Gold Medal Award ceremony in the Midland Prison.
Pre-Covid, she facilitated several mental health awareness workshops on an annual basis within this setting.
“Last year, I was on air with the wonderful Marty Morrissey, RTÉ Country Living, discussing stress and farming. You cannot get better than that, I guess.”
“I was also very pleased that the Rural Network NI got our national support to reproduce Coping with the Pressures of Farming, which I co-authored with Barry Caslin of Teagasc. This was a pleasant honour.”
If she had the opportunity to do anything differently, Finola would not as she believes that “life shapes you as you live and love it”.
“There is little or no value in holding regrets as they can create havoc with peace of mind.”
“However, at the end of the day, we are all human and will hold regret. As my father-in-law, Ted Carey, said to me many years ago: why worry about the day you have never seen?”
Mental health in agriculture
She believes that there is a significant amount of awareness around mental health in the farming community.
“It has been a privilege that I have been able to represent MHI in this process and be in a position to bring my own lived farm family experiences and insights to bear in this area of our work.”
“No less than any other member within society or our communities, in general, farmers and farming families encounter mental health challenges.”
“Mental health, as we know, does not discriminate, and when illness impacts on health, let it be mental or physical, it is necessary to access the correct services,” Finola added.
“I believe it is important for people to understand that mental health is not mental illness.”
“Whether a person has a diagnosis of a mental illness or any other illness, a person needs to look after their mental health and well-being as part of recovery from any such illness.”
A stigma in the agricultural industry
In Finola’s opinion, there is a stigma associated with mental health “from lack of understanding and misconceptions”.
“Then life can throw up many other sources of stigma. However, I do not believe it is any greater in the agricultural industry than any other sector of our economy or community.”
“What is important is that the negative impact of it is addressed and that people make it their business to learn and understand what mental health truly is.”
“At the end of the day, if a football player has an injury, they are not expected to play. So, why need it to be any different when a person is slowed down because of a mental health challenge?”
Finola advises that when we encounter an illness setback, it is necessary to “allow for personal compassion and be patient about recovery”.
Equally important, it is very helpful for any close family member to provide support and compassion to support recovery.
She feels that farmers are more open and informed about mental health. “This is largely thanks to organisations such as Mental Health Ireland, and the promotion that organisations such as the IFA, Teagasc and, indeed, your own publication undertakes.”
Main issues farmers struggle with
“Farming is essentially a business and has to be managed accordingly. Consequently, there will be issues around, for example, finances, maintenance of machinery and farm building, inheritance matters, veterinary expenses alongside massive compliance with rules and regulation.”
“Coupled with these are long hours of work and family needs and family relationships.”
“When the chain of action is upset by, perhaps, a life event, illness, a serious farm accident, financial concern stress can creep in and cause potential havoc if not recognised and appropriately managed. However, I think the major challenge is the work-life balance,” Finola admitted.
Depending on the seasonal needs of farming enterprise, whether it is calving, lambing, foaling or silage making time of year, Finola believes that “farming is a 24/7 365 days a year, and so is looking after mental health”.
There are many accessible supports. Always and ever, “the first point of contact is with the family doctor.
However, it is important to emphasise the importance of recognising that help is required and to seek it out.
Finola initiated a farming resilience site on its national website with her colleague, Sonia Rennicks, Head of Training and eMental Health, in partnership with Teagasc and the IFA.
“It is very well set out to meet individual and family needs and supports.”
Advice: Talk, talk and talk
“Talk, talk and talk – seek out the necessary and appropriate supports.”
“It is very important to find the opportunity to talk and listen and most importantly, to know ‘you are not the only one struggling in or at that point of time.”
“It is sometimes accepted that farmers make more use of a vet than they do of their family doctor.”
Finola believes it is important not to ignore stress and anxiety. “As we know, a stitch in time saves nine.”
“When an illness hits a family, let it be physical or otherwise, the whole family is impacted. The important message here is not to ignore symptoms of stress and seek out medical support at the outset.”
Finola feels that it is always “important to have some plan of action in mind, a goal to achieve”.
“I am a natural pursuer of information, knowledge, travelling and always keen to take on a new challenge.”
She recently completed a postgraduate course on Workplace Health Promotion at NUIG.
In the autumn, she plans to undertake an advanced course on coaching and mental health course at Kingstown College – Dublin.
“In the autumn, Clarus Press will publish a book that I initiated on Veterinary Law and Practice in Ireland and has been co-authored with Dr Lisa Geraghty, a former student in my contract law class.”
Finola feels there are many “wonderful opportunities” to work in the NGO sector, particularly for law and social science graduates.
“I highly recommend such employment. The NGOs tend to be very professional. Nonetheless, they also hold that extra special engagement with the people they serve.”
Working as a development officer and a law lecturer has always been “exciting, interesting and rewarding” for Finola.
“I have been fortunate to be able to be the person I like to be thanks to my family rearing in Lismore and more recent decades with my husband, Timothy, and our young and developing family. We have so much to learn from the upcoming generation, but, of course, it is ideally a two-way process.”
“We too, like many other families, have had to handle life challenges. However, the greatest reward and challenges with all the ups and downs of life for me has emerged from married life, contributing to the rearing of my family, and seeing their progress and their incessant desire to come home to help out.”
“It is in their DNA, from their dad and many previous generations. I could not imagine living or existing anywhere else.”
“Life is for living; yes, it can be very challenging with setbacks and disheartening life events that will test the mind and soul to its core, and indeed family life.”
“But always and ever, it is important to find the energy and support with such moments to keep going.”
“‘Níl tuile dá mhéad nach dtránn’ – There is no flood, no matter how big, that won’t subside,” Finola of Mental Health Ireland concluded.
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Note: Interviewee provided all photos
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