Cork man's quest to boost farmers’ mental health

Cork farmer Peter Hynes tells CHRIS DUNNE how he reached out for help when his mental heath suffered — and about his campaign to now help other farmers
Cork man's quest to boost farmers’ mental health

FAMILY LIFE: The Hynes family, of Aherla, Peter and Paula, with daughters Chloe, Becky and Georgin

WHEN Cork farmer Peter Hynes was working ridiculous hours 20 years ago, the pressure on him took its toll.

“That was before I was farming,” says Peter, who is married to Paula. The couple have three daughters, Chloe, aged 17, Becky, aged 13, and Georgina, aged seven.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree at Rathard Holstein, Peter’s 180-cow herd farm based in Aherla, Co. Cork.

“Becky can milk the entire herd by herself!” says the proud dad.

Peter spearheaded a campaign called Ag Mental Health Week last month, urging farmers around the world to stand together, and starting a conversation about mental health in the sector

“The reality us that we lose more farmers to suicide than we do to farm accidents,” says Peter,.

Research has shown that farmers are three times more likely to die by suicide than any other occupation. There is a 50% chance of a farmer struggling with mental health problems throughout their career.

“It is about normalising the conversation round mental health and suicide,” says Peter of the campaign.

“The hope is that by achieving a global conversation, we can offer solutions along with help and information where support can be found.”

Masses of people answered the call.

“The response from all over the world has been phenomenal. The conversation needs to continue.”

Peter felt far from normal when his own mental health was suffering.

“I was working more than 100 hours a week,” he recalls of those dark days two decades ago.

“I lost my self-confidence, I stopped sleeping well. I stopped eating well. The experience felt very isolating.”

IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Peter Hynes launch a charity farming calendar as part of Ag Mental Health week
IMPORTANT MESSAGE: Peter Hynes launch a charity farming calendar as part of Ag Mental Health week

He was under severe pressure.

“Inside I felt traumatised, but I still had to put a smile on my face in public. I tried to continue the pace of normal life while a car crash was happening inside me.”

He had loved ones by his side to help him.

“My wife Paula encouraged me to go to our GP in Ballincollig, Pat Lee,” says Peter.

The stigma of suffering poor mental health, and opening up about it, made him cautious in seeking help.

“I was slow to go,” says Peter. But he was glad he did.

“Pat put me in touch with a counsellor. Sitting in front of her was a tough thing to do for myself.”

Peter was asked tough questions.

“She had to ask me if I was thinking of self-harming, or of thinking of ending my life and taking it further,” says Peter.

“That stopped me in my tracks and I took a few minutes to answer."

He didn’t have to think for too long.

“I loved my wife and I would never do that to her. We have a great relationship, even during the tough times over the years.”

Peter found another woman who would stand by his side in good times and in bad times.

“Mary was a phenomenal counsellor,” he says. “I got a huge sense of relief after our chat that first day.

“After a few hours, that sense of relief goes and you realise how tough it is to cope yourself and how much you need an understanding counsellor. Mary was like a life-line, a crutch to hold me up.

“Expert counselling can help to prop you up until you are able to heal yourself.”

Peter kept up his counselling sessions with Mary.

“I went to see her once a week for months talking things through. Then Paula joined us,” says Peter.

How did that go?

“The first day she came with me to counselling I remember that we cried a lot

“Paula stood alongside me when I couldn’t stand up on my own.

“We began to understand each other better. It was a huge leap forward from where I was in my head. I felt able to open up a lot more.”

Peter, arriving at a good place, knew that he had been pointed in the right direction.

“Counselling was a huge help to me, getting me back on track,” he says.

He stopped clocking up long working hours.

“I slowed down and I worked less hours.”

Peter also enjoyed quality time with his wife and daughters.

“Paula and I worked at our relationship and we made an effort at talking more, at going out more.”

Romance blossomed more.

“People are asking us why we have a date night so often!”

Peter found a new way of life that suited him.

“Simple things, like eating three nutritious meals a day, being able to unwind, sleeping at night and going to bed at 10pm all helped me. Little by little I got a handle on things.”

Peter says he was fortunate that he had a proactive GP to advise him.

“He had that vision that I should talk to someone,” he adds.

Now, Peter has got the ball rolling, reaching out to others who may be in the same dark place that he once found himself in.

He knows everybody hurts sometimes.

“Starting the conversation is important,” says Peter, who is very aware that mental stress from farming can arise from ongoing work, time pressure, financial pressure, work unpredictability, and the uncertainty Brexit and the pandemic might bring.

“Farming can be an isolating occupation,” says Peter.

“There is an initial reluctance to reach out or to speak out. Real people battle real things. Encouraging people experiencing distress to seek help is key.”

Peter, sowing the seeds of hope, has put the important topic of mental health associated with farming in the spotlight.

“Tight incomes, barely breaking even, can push farmers to the brink.

“The weather is always a worry for farmers’ livelihoods globally. Here, in Ireland we have the worry of what Brexit might bring or what it might take away.

RAISING AWARENESS: Peter and Paula Hynes launch a charity farming calendar as part of Ag Mental Health week
RAISING AWARENESS: Peter and Paula Hynes launch a charity farming calendar as part of Ag Mental Health week

“There are so many pressures going with farming, even though it is one of the best jobs in the world.”

Webinars, podcasts and social media helped promote wellness in the farming community, helping to give farmers coping skills and to generally have a conversation.

“We have farmers connecting from the UK, the USA, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa,” says Peter.

The conversation about mental health is reverberating around the world.

“During and after Ag Mental Health Week, the conversation evolved into a global conversation. It is echoing all across the world.

“The connection is vital for people, rather than suppressing or denying their feelings. We have much planned over the next 12 months including a website listing mental health resources throughout the world. It’ll be like a one-stop shop for people in crisis.”

Peter has tweaked his way of living for a more positive way of life.

“The very fact that you are working on the farm every day means you are living at work,” say Peter.

“We built a new house opposite the farm. We needed separation.”

The extensive dairy family farm offers its own positivity.

“We’ve raised €56,000 hosting open days mostly for mental health charities,” says Peter.

He championed another worthy charity.

“We raised money for Breast Cancer Ireland too.”

Is that another cause close to his heart?

“I live in a house with four women! Breast Cancer Ireland is a good charity to support. Raising awareness about early detection for breast cancer improving survival rates is important.”

Peter knows what is important in life.

“I learned to prioritise the right things in life,” he says.

“Eating well, getting adequate sleep, being honest in how I am feeling... all helps enormously.”

Peter has a positive mantra.

“Life is for living.”

Life is good for Peter Hynes.

“Paula and I are more in love than we ever were. Yes, we’ve been through tough times. We lost a baby and Paula lost her parents. We got through those tough times together.”

He wants people to live their lives to the fullest.

“Ridding the stigma of mental health problems and smashing it all around the world is possible,” he says,

Peter knows there is power in numbers; people power.

“Together we can smash that stigma. By standing together we can achieve so much. We need to get the message out there that it is OK not to be OK,” says Peter.

“Globally we have the power.”

Information on the Ag Mental Health Week campaign can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by searching @AgMental Health Week or using the #AgMentalHealthWeek

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