Mental Health Awareness in Forestry – When you can’t see the wood for the trees
Mental health problems are a growing concern. One in five adults in the UK has considered taking their own life, a very sobering fact. Despite an increase in people accessing treatment, around a third of all people with a mental health problem have sought no professional help at all. For many, experiencing mental health problems can often feel like a sign of weakness.
Mental health problems are a common human experience and range from common problems such as depression or anxiety to rarer problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. People often feel that their condition isn’t serious enough to seek help and often wait for a breakdown, but in reality it is never too early to seek advice.
The stigma surrounding mental health needs to be changed; everyone has mental health, we just need to take care of it. Good mental health means being able to function, think, feel, and react in a manner that allows you to live your life. However, if you experience a period of poor mental health you might find the ways you’re frequently thinking, feeling or reacting become difficult, or even impossible, to cope with.
One of the more common issues for forestry workers is that we are seen as hardy people, working in a rough and tough industry where we supposedly shrug off ailments and injuries to get the job done. We are perceived as the Rambos or Lara Crofts of the forest industry. In reality, this is not the case. I have lost some good friends due to mental health issues, and unfortunately they showed no outward symptoms of the agony they were suffering so I had no idea that they desperately needed help.
Every loss is tragic but one close friend who took his own life left me in utter disbelief. I was unaware of what he was dealing with when I went out with him on what would be his last evening. I thought hewas okay, he appeared to be having a good time. Even today I can’t comprehend why he never spoke to me about his problems – I don’t know if it would have helped but I still get angry and extremely sad whenever I think of him and this was a long time ago back in the early 1990’s. I always thought he had it made as he had a good, well paid, full-time job working on a new forwarder, owned his own home, and was happily married with two beautiful daughters. To this day I still don’t know why he chose the route that he did and, even more heartbreakingly, neither does his family.
“Two common reasons for not seeking help is one, the negative stigma and discrimination associated with having a mental illness. Often people don’t want to be labelled “mentally ill” or “crazy” and are concerned about how such a label could negatively impact their career, education, or other life goals. Two, the feeling of hopelessness and depression can be so demoralising that they believe that “nothing will help” or “they’ll never get better.”
A few years after this incident I understood more after experiencing first-hand how mental health issues can impact on your life. We all have times when we feel down or stressed. Most of the time those feelings pass, but sometimes they develop into a mental health problem like anxiety or depression, which can impact on our daily lives.
I was married with a young daughter who was just a few months old. We were living in Yorkshire and I was working in Scotland operating a Timberjack 810B on a hand-cut first thinning for Elliot Henderson. I was living in a caravan on-site and the cutters had been on-site for a few weeks prior to my arrival. They were working quite a long way from me so I had no contact with them; mobile phone reception was in its infancy with little or no signal in the forest. It was quite a solitary and lonely existence.
Like many people in forestry working away from home was part and parcel of the job, and although this is tough on families the only alternative is to find other work locally. It would be difficult to find workin another profession that would be as financially rewarding and offer the same freedom to organiseyour own work schedules. Rather than travel up and down every week I chose to work for ten days at a time, which cut down on unpaid travelling time and fuel costs and gave me four quality days at home.
This working situation and having a young child was not an ideal situation for my wife, but her family lived nearby to help or for a chat over a cup of tea while I was away. While things had not been great between us for a while, during one weekend at home I noticed that the atmosphere had turned very hostile and communication between us started to deteriorate.
In the following weeks the relationship broke down completely and I moved out. I was still working as the house and bills had to be paid but I wasn’t sleeping properly and definitely not in a good frame of mind. I spent time with my daughter on my weekends off and my wife’s sister let me stay with her and her family and took care of my meals and washing. A few weeks later I collected my personal possessions from the house and that’s when it really hit home that my marriage was finally over.
The following morning as I was driving to work, something inside my head snapped. I switched off my phone and part way up the A68 I pulled over and got out of my car. I looked in the back and the sum total of my life didn’t even fill a Vauxhall Cavalier – the only worthwhile possession I had left was my companion and confidant Sheeba, my German
While sitting at the edge of the road I was focused on only one thing and that was to bring my life to a close. Sheeba sensed that something serious was amiss as she kept nudging me and started whimpering. and I decided that I was going to have to postpone this until I was sure she would be ok and well looked after. We had been inseparable for over six years since she was a pup and she deserved much better.
Unbeknown to me my ex-wife’s sister had been very concerned about my state of mind and telephoned my parents, who had been trying unsuccessfully to phone me. When I got to work I was a complete wreck and had been sat in the forwarder for over an hour with my head in my hands when I heard a vehicle approaching. My parents had phoned Elliot and he had dropped everything to come out to my site; he was a brilliant help and spent ages talking and trying to offer me positive advice. He made me follow him out of the forest until I found phone reception to contact my parents and insisted that I call him whenever I felt the need to chat and told me to take as much time off as I needed.
After an emotional conversation with my parents I realised the torment, heartbreak and worry I had put them through. I realised I needed help and made an emergency appointment with my doctor. The doctor was very supportive and I was there for well over an hour just chatting and explaining my situation and I felt somewhat better than I had for a long time.
The recovery was slow and painful but with support from my parents, my best friend Sheeba by my side and regular contact with my daughter, I was getting there.
I am so pleased I sought help and am still here. I remarried and we are still together 20 years later. I had an amazing relationship with my parents until they sadly died, have been here to see my daughter grow up and present me with my first beautiful granddaughter, and have thoroughly enjoyed living my life.
“Being happily married or in a stable relationship is linked to both physical and mental health benefits, including lower
morbidity and mortality. People in a stable relationship have greater life satisfaction, lower stress levels, lower blood pressure and better heart health than individuals who are single.”
Mental health issues can manifest in many different forms, I didn’t think it was something that could happen to me, but they can be caused by financial worries, relationships, anxiety, bullying, depression or isolation.
While mental illness often runs in families it is not hereditary, but it is heritable. This means that people do not inherit mental illness; rather, they inherit genes that make them susceptible to mental illness. Mental illness isn’t a trait so it can’t be passed down directly from parent to child.
Social media and mobile internet like 4G is a lifesaver for forestry workers today as they can keep in touch with friends and family from remote location and there is a significantly reduced sense of isolation. Although a study at the University of Pennsylvania found that high usage of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram increases rather than decreases feelings of loneliness. Conversely, the study found that reducing social media usage can actually make you feel less lonely and isolated and improve your overall well-being.
Another argument against social media came from a teacher friend of mine who had just been to the funeral of one of his pupils. He went on to explain that bullying is rife on social media. Years ago, before children had mobile phones, if they were bullied at school they came home and that was it until the following morning. With phones and social media, however, the bullying is relentless, bullying can follow you anywhere so that no place, not even home, ever feels safe.
I had never considered this problem and realised that this is happening to many people on all types of social media; for example, sometimes someone asking for advice/help or will post a picture of their work can be ridiculed or belittled by others and over time this can have serious consequences. Bullying is strongly associated with mental ill health. Not everyone has big enough shoulders to shrug off hurtful comments and will take them to heart.
“Multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts. One study found reducing social media use can result in a significant reduction in these levels.”
The vicious cycle of unhealthy social media use
Excessive social media use can create a negative, self-perpetuating cycle:
- When you feel lonely, depressed, anxious, or stressed, you use social media more often—as a way to relieve boredom or feel connected to others.
- Using social media more often, though, increases FOMO (fear of missing out) and feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, and isolation.
- In turn, these feelings negatively affect your mood and worsen symp symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress.
- These worsening symptoms cause you to use social media even more, and so the downward spiral
Neil Duff, a colleague I have known for many years who operates a harvester, has been struggling with his own demons recently.
“Last year I hit a wall that I couldn’t see any way of getting over. There was no single issue to cause this that I could put my finger on; I think it was an accumulation of events combining together.
I was working on a very steep site which slows down production and requires a much higher level of concentration – Sweden have conducted trials which prove a harvester operator has to make more decisions every minute than a fighter pilot. I felt mounting pressure as the money for harvesting was getting tighter, and overall it was a stinker of a job.
I just couldn’t think straight and decided to phone my employer to hand in my resignation. Fortunately he insisted I take some time out and assured me that my job would be there when I felt ready to return.
I was off for six weeks in total and realised that I needed help in dealing with this problem as it was not something I could fight on my own. I went to see my GP and he prescribed medication (which I still take), but unfortunately I felt that he had no time to listen to me – it was a case of “what’s the problem, take these and next patient please.” I came away feeling like I was wasting his time. What I really wanted was a professional to listen to me and see if they could help me to find out why I was feeling this way.
Looking back, I think I have been struggling with mental health issues for much of my life. Many times I thought I was just a bit down in the dumps but realise now that it was something that perhaps could have been treated. There have been a lot of events in my life that I now know would have been much easier to deal with if my head had been in a better place.
At times I have just wanted to hide away from everything and everyone and a caravan in the forest is just the place to do that, but I know that’s not the answer.
I think there is still a stigma towards mental health and people see it as a weakness but I didn’t know where to turn to and still don’t. I know of many others who have suffered and there is nowhere for us to turn to. Perhaps if some of the governing bodies in forestry could spend more time addressing serious issues like mental health instead of implementing meaningless rules and regulations, we might make some progress.
Currently I am not too bad but I have to admit listening to all the Covid-19 doom and gloom on the radio and TV is not helping me. Although the job I was on was halted, luckily I have found some work in a thinnings which is keeping me occupied.
At least my family understand more about what I am going through and this has been hugely helpful.”
With the Coronavirus, we have had to adapt with the magazine and work from home more than usual. The odd time that we have been out we have been vigilant in following Government advice so as not to put ourselves or others at risk.
I have to admit that I have struggled with the Coronavirus lockdown; luckily I was in a good frame of mind, but it has still been difficult. I am a social animal and in my element when chatting face to face with other likeminded forestry people, and I’ve found not being able to do so genuinely tough. I have been in regular contact with friends and colleagues but I have only seen my granddaughter Polly once, just after she was born, and find this a wrench. While video calling is massively helpful in keeping in contact, it still doesn’t come anywhere close to giving Polly a cuddle.
“Human beings need face-to-face contact to be mentally healthy. Nothing reduces stress and boosts your mood faster or more effectively than eye-to-eye contact with someone who cares about you. The more you prioritize social media interaction over in-person relationships, the more you’re at risk for developing or exacerbating mood disorders such as anxiety and depression”.
For others, lockdown is a lot harder as they have the worry of their financial status and the uncertainty over the future of their jobs and businesses. The Government has been helpful with some financial aid but for many forestry workers not in the qualifying aid categories listed it might be too little too late.
Researching the impact that Coronavirus is having on people’s peoples mental health is unimaginable.
Millions of UK adults have felt panicked, afraid, and unprepared because of the pandemic. One in four adults (24%) in the UK has felt lonely during lockdown. The concern is that the longer the pandemic goes on, the more feelings become long-term. The impact of long-term loneliness on mental health can be particularly difficult hard to manage. While the initial priority must be to prevent loss of life, the Mental Health Foundation fears that we may be living with the mental health impacts of the Coronavirus situation for many years to come.
“Our research is starting to reveal how the financial and employment inequalities caused and exacerbated by the pandemic are affecting people’s mental health.” Dr Antonis Kousoulis, director of the Mental Health Foundation.
We have very concerning evidence that many millions of people in the UK are worrying about fundamental financial matters and their job security – both of which are closely linked to poor mental health.
Without further, rapid UK government action to improve people’s economic security, we can expect things to get worse, especially for the poorest. The financial inequalities that lead to increased and unequal rates of mental ill-health will be intensified – and the benefits of recovery and coming out of the lockdown will not be shared equally.
This poll was carried out before full lockdown was introduced. Even then, there were clear indications that the pandemic was beginning to have a significant impact on the nation’s mental health.
The concern is that the longer these levels of mental health problems continue, the worse they become for many people. Among the issues we will need to monitor are impacts on levels of trauma, suicidal thoughts and mental health vulnerability.
People with existing mental health problems are ending up in crisis and at higher risk of suicide because they cannot get their usual help from the NHS during the lockdown. Those struggling with serious conditions have found it hard to cope because their appointments have been cancelled and they have had trouble getting support from their GP. There is growing fear that the unprecedented restrictions on people’s movements, and consequent isolation from family and friends, will lead to a sharp rise in anxiety and depression, especially for those who already have a psychological condition. 80% of people living with mental illness who responded to a survey by charity Rethink Mental Illness said that coronavirus and the measures to contain it have made their mental health worse, including 28% stating that it is ‘much worse’.
Many people who previously might not have needed mental health support are likely to do so in future.”
If you start to feel anxious or depressed and you are unable to get an appointment with your GP, there are some steps you can take which will help you to cope:
- Regular exercise – exercise can help you manage symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety. Physical activity can also counteract the effects of certain psychiatric medications that may cause weight gain. Consider walking, swimming, gardening, or any form of physical activity that you enjoy. Even light physical activity can make a difference.
- Avoid alcohol and drug use – using alcohol or recreational drugs can make it difficult to treat a mental illness. If you are addicted, quitting can be a real challenge. If you cannot quit on your own, see your doctor or find a support group to help you.
- Make healthy choices – maintaining a regular schedule that includes sufficient sleep, healthy eating and regular physical activity is important to your mental health.
- Do not make important decisions when your symptoms are severe.
- Avoid decision-making when you’re in the depth of mental illness symptoms since you may not be thinking clearly.
- Determine priorities – you may reduce the impact of your mental illness by managing time and energy. Cut back on obligations when necessary and set reasonable goals. Give yourself permission to do less when symptoms are worse. You may find it helpful to make a list of daily tasks or use a planner to structure your time and stay organised.
- Join a support group – connecting with others facing similar challenges may help you cope. Support groups for mental illness are available in many communities and online. One good place to start is the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Stay connected with friends and family – try to participate in social activities and get together with family or friends regularly. Ask for help when you need it and be upfront with your loved ones about how you’re doing.
- Learn about your mental illness – your doctor or therapist can provide you with information or may recommend classes, books or websites. Include your family too as this can help the people who care about you understand what you’re going through and learn how they can help.
- Keep a journal – or jot down brief thoughts or record symptoms on a smartphone app. Keeping track of your personal life and sharing information with your therapist can help you identify what triggers or improves your symptoms. This is also a healthy way to explore and express pain, anger, fear and other emotions.
Don’t suffer in silence
If you feel desperate and in despair there is help out there so please ask for it. Every six seconds the Samaritans answer a call for help. The Samaritans are not only for the moment of crisis but are there to prevent the crisis day or night for anyone who’s struggling to cope or who needs someone to listen without judgement or pressure.
The Samaritans give people ways to cope and the skills to be there for others. They encourage, promote and celebrate those moments of connection between people that can save lives, offering listening and support to people and communities in times of need.
In prisons, schools, hospitals and on the rail network, the Samaritans are working with people who are going through a difficult time and training others to do the same.
Every life lost to suicide is a tragedy, and Samaritans’ vision is that fewer people die by suicide. That’s why they work tirelessly to reach more people and make suicide prevention a priority. The Samaritans are there for you 24/7 365 days a year. PLEASE CALL THEM ON 116 123
Leading mental health charities are uniting for the first time to provide round the clock mental health support to those working on the frontline against Covid-19. Mind, the Samaritans, Shout, Hospice UK and the Royal Foundation recently launched Our Frontline, a combination of 1-2-1 support and online resources for NHS workers, carers, the Blue Light emergency services, and key workers who are putting their mental health under pressure, while many of us do our bit by staying at home.
At a time when face to face contact is limited, Our Frontline (ourfrontline.org) brings together a number of services to provide important workers with round the clock 1-2-1 support. Frontline staff and keyworkers can call or text a trained volunteer and access specially developed online resources, toolkits, and advice to support their mental health and emotional wellbeing through this challenging time.
The Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is formally supporting Our Frontline and helping to ensure that frontline staff and key workers in need of help are aware that services are available. The Foundation has a long history of raising awareness of the importance of mental health and played a leading role in creating Shout and the Mental Health at Work programme, both of which are key elements of the Our Frontline initiative.
With regards to Our Frontline, His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge said: “Over the past few weeks, millions of frontline workers across the UK have put their physical and mental health on the line to protect us all during the Coronavirus pandemic. Every day they confront traumatic situations at the same time as having to contend with their own worries about the risks to themselves and their families. That takes a real toll, and as I’ve seen for myself through my work with the Air Ambulance, without the right support at the right time the challenges they face will only be greater. Catherine and I, together with The Royal Foundation, will do all we can to support Our Frontline. This work will be our top priority for the months ahead.”
Mind, Samaritans, Shout and Hospice UK will be working with employers, charities, and
representative groups to support key workers now and during the months ahead to make sure we look after and then rebuild the mental health of our frontline workers alongside our economy and society.
Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, said:
“Mind is delighted to be involved in Our Frontline – providing support for our hard-working key workers. Every day, those working in health and social care, 999 services and other vital roles – staff working in super markets, pharmacies, transport, catering, and cleaning to name a few – face huge challenges to their physicaland mental health. That’s why it’s so important they can easily access information and contact trained advisors to help promote good mental health, any time of day or night.”
Ruth Sutherland, CEO of Samaritans, said:
“As a former NHS nurse myself, I am so proud that we are able to work with some of the UK’s leading organisations to support our key workers and their mental health. Our trained volunteers are a listening ear for anyone, especially those who are putting their mental health under immense short and long-term pressure to provide our frontline against Coronavirus.”
Victoria Hornby, CEO of Mental Health
Innovations, which runs Shout, said: “Millions of people across the UK are pulling together to form our frontline and we’ve joined together as charities to support the mental health of all of these essential workers. By combining our services, we can provide a single place for our frontline to go for support if they are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or struggling to manage their mental health for another reason, such as the loss of a colleague or loved one. Shout Crisis Volunteers are incredibly proud to be able to listen to and talk to key workers through a confidential text conversation, whenever and wherever they need our support.”
Samaritans. To talk about anything that is upsetting you, you can contact Samaritans 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can call 116 123 (free from any phone), email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit some branches in person. You can also call the Welsh Language Line on 0300 123 3011 (7pm–11pm every day).
SANEline. If you’re experiencing a mental health problem or supporting someone else, you can call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 (4.30pm–10.30pm every day).
Papyrus HOPELINEUK. If you’re under 35 and struggling with suicidal feelings, or concerned about a young person who might be struggling, you can call Papyrus HOPELINEUK on 0800 068 4141 (weekdays 10am-10pm, weekends 2pm-10pm and bank holidays 2pm–10pm), email email@example.com or text 07786 209 697.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). If you identify as male, you can call the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on 0800 58 58 58 (5pm–midnight every day) or use their webchat service.
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