Share Your Thoughts: Holly Atkinson
That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, catches up with Holly Atkinson, who featured last Christmas, as part of our dairy segment, to this time discuss mental health and well-being in farming and veterinary and her new social media initiative, Share Your Thoughts.
“I am a stay-at-home-mum to two children (Abel and Casey), living on an organic dairy farm in South Devon.
I have taken a career break from being a vet and help out on the farm (which my husband manages) when needed.
Although from a non-farming background, I have worked on farms since the age of 15 and will be back calf rearing on the farm this spring.
I am a qualified vet, and although currently non-practicing due to my decision to focus on our young kids, I am still very passionate about the veterinary industry.
Along with farming, it has a very poor mental health status, and I want to do what I can to support the vet world and raise awareness of the difficulties it is facing.
I have always been aware of the importance of positive health and well-being and wanted to promote it, but in vet school and as a new graduate, I struggled to strike that balance for myself.
I trained and worked with the “work hard, play hard” ethic, where often I was running off empty and never slowed down.
But, I became more aware of the importance of health and well-being for my own sustainability and adjusted my mindset to realising that it is ok to say ‘no’ to things and take a break.
I saw I was not the only one either and realised the mindset in veterinary and farming needed to shift.
Face Your Thoughts
I set up a dedicated Face Your Thoughts page on social media – Instagram and Facebook – at the end of August; it is something I had wanted to do for a long time, and the time felt right.
It is in its infancy, but my aim is to raise awareness of topics impacting people’s mental and physical health and how people can seek help for themselves or others.
As a vet, farmer, parent, farmer’s wife etc., I am drawing on my own experiences and understanding, and doing this to support like-minded people, as well as their family, friends, anyone that needs/uses farmers or vets, and just anyone in general.
I want it to be an inclusive space, and I have a lot of ideas and plans in the pipeline!
In August, I completed the Qualsafe Level 3 Mental Health First Aid course, which was delivered by Red Umbrella, partnered with the RABI charity.
Also, I have always enjoyed communication and how it can be used to help people. I studied this in more detail for my final year project at vet school and think it is such an important area in supporting people, whether that be in veterinary, farming or elsewhere.
I am also a mentor to vets pursuing higher qualifications under the BSAVA postgraduate certificate programmes and have done this for many years since completing my own postgraduate certificate in small animal medicine.
Suffering in silence
I think mental health has traditionally been a taboo subject, especially within farming communities that are known for their resilience.
So many people suffer in silence, with it often only becoming apparent of their struggles when people reach a crisis point.
RABI’s big farming survey – which was released last year – really highlighted some shocking statistics to back up the general feeling that the farming community are suffering.
I was shocked to learn that over 1/3 of the farming population questioned were probably or possibly depressed, and almost 1/2 were experiencing some form of anxiety.
Most shocking was that almost 1 in 5 people knew someone who had attempted suicide in the last five years.
Luckily, it seems things are starting to change. With more access to support, especially through farming-specific organisations and charities, people are able to reach out more easily for support.
Social media has enabled a positive platform for the stigmas to be broken down and support made available.
People are becoming more aware of how to protect and improve their mental health before reaching a crisis point.
The role of Mental Health First Aiders (MHFA) in the workplace is such a positive change to identify and support mental ill-health, as well as protecting mental health and well-being.
I believe every workplace should have an MHFA, just like everyone has a general first aider.
I think the causes of mental health struggles are multifactorial and (in no particular order) may include the following:
- Public perception;
- Supermarket influence;
- Inspections and certification;
- Succession planning;
- Disruptive weather;
- Rural crime (including dog attacks and theft);
- Physical ill-health;
- Government legislation.
The impact of these factors will depend on the following:
- Farm type;
- Business model;
- Family/team dynamics.
Causes of poor mental health will vary from person to person, and often, it will be a number of seemingly little things that eventually cumulate in an inability to function and cope as ‘normal’ for that person.
For example, in isolation getting home to find your boiler has broken may be frustrating, but you can find a way to deal with it.
However, if you have had a day/week/month of things going wrong, i.e. bad weather, broken equipment, machinery breakdowns, sick animals, TB issues, a looming inspection, ill health etc., then suddenly a broken boiler, maybe the ‘thing that breaks the camel’s back’ and suddenly with such a heavy mental and/or physical load the ability to cope can be harder, and the little things feel worse.
Like between mental health and farm management
A farmer’s mental health status can impact everything when it comes to running a farm; their care and attention to their colleagues, animals, machinery, and themselves can all be impacted.
They may make more mistakes, and their safety or other people’s safety may be at risk. Also, they may lack focus, or they may become hyper-focused in areas.
They may lack interest in themselves or others, their mood may change, and their ability to communicate with others may be impacted.
All of this will have a bearing on the day-to-day running of a business, including its viability, efficiency, reputation, and success.
I would recommend finding something manageable and sustainable that you can do regularly which makes you feel happy.
Reflect on your health and well-being, see if there is anything you could change to improve it and consider asking for help from someone you trust, doctor, mental health organisation if needed.
Talk to your work colleagues and see if there is anything that can be done to improve everyone’s mental health and well-being, do the same at home too.
Research coping mechanisms to reduce stress and anxiety with exercise, meditation, mindfulness etc.
I love drawing and being creative, and so in the evenings, when the kids are asleep, I sketch and paint and enjoy creating material for Face Your Thoughts.
I love spending time with my family and going on little day trips to the beach or exploring an area nearby.
Since having kids, I have found it harder to find time to go out on my motorbike, but that is something I definitely want to get back into.
I have a beautiful Triumph Bonneville, and riding it is an amazing form of mindfulness because you have to be focused on ‘the now’.
Moreover, I love spending time with cows and calves and going for a walk on the farm really boosts my mood.
Talking about my feelings really helps; every day, my husband and I will share the day’s events.
It is a great way to gain perspective and clarity and offload any worries. Talking to people I love really boosts me.
It is an exciting time of change, and I have lots of plans to help promote positive physical and mental health and well-being in farming, veterinary and beyond.”
Follow Share Your Thoughts on Facebook and Instagram.
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