'Telling others about my depression was the hardest thing I have ever done'
THREE years ago Northern Ireland dairy farmer Adam Watson was not in a good place as stress from falling milk prices and his forthcoming wedding started to affect his mental health.
Little did Adam know at that stage those pressures would boil over and push him to a point where he seriously considered taking his own life.
Adam, 38, is now in a much better place happily married to Laura and enjoying being a father to the couple’s seven month old son, little Abel.
He has just recently opened up more about his own mental health in a bid to encourage others to stop suffering in silence and ask for help.
In partnership with his father Willard, Adam milks 120 cows at the family farm near Coleraine in County Londonderry. For the first few years after returning home to farm from university, life as a dairy farmer was going well for Adam.
However, the past three years has been a tough journey for the young farmer and keen football fan.
“I returned home to farm in 2004 after completing my studies,” said Adam. “For the first ten to 12 years dairy farming was doing well and we were making some money to help repay loans and the overdraft. However, milk prices took a bit of a tumble in 2016 dropping from 35 to 17 pence per litre.
“As I watched our overdraft of £50,000 max out, and a further extension of £30,000 also reach the limit, the financial pressures started to get to me.
“It turned out I was completely over-reacting to those pressures, but as my wedding to Laura was approaching on October 1, 2016 it all was getting too much.”
The extremes of Adam’s depression almost caused him to take his own life one day ahead of the wedding when he found himself crying uncontrollably.
“That morning I was walking down the lane to change the electric fence to allow the cows more space to graze,” he said. “I felt relatively ok but suddenly everything in my head began to build up. I started to cry uncontrollably but didn’t want anyone to see me so I ran to the hedge and sat under a big tree.
“I didn’t understand what was happening or why I was crying. It felt like a black hood had closed around me. I felt alone and I couldn’t tell anybody what was happening.
“As I sat on my knees below that tree, with my hands balling earth and grass together, I realised something. I realised in that moment, that I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”
Adam held himself together for the wedding but deep down knew something was affecting his mental health and found it difficult to talk to anyone about it.
“Almost three weeks after my wedding day, I went to see the doctor about a rash on my arm. Things in my head were particularly bad that day.
“I showed the doctor my arm and psoriasis was the diagnosis. It appeared on my elbow shortly after coming home from a few days in Donegal after the wedding.
“The doctor said a cream should sort it out and printed the prescription. My head was pounding and I could feel the sweat running down my back. It felt surreal. Like it wasn’t me sitting there.
“He reached me the prescription and the appointment was over. He expected me to get up, say my thanks and go. I wanted to take the prescription and run out the door. But I knew I’d have to face Laura when I got home.
“What would be causing the psoriasis I asked? He shrugged. It could be any number of things, he said. But he was looking at me closer now,” said Adam.
While Adam started to ask more questions the doctor became more curious and that is when the young farmer did something he promised himself he wouldn’t, break down and cry.
“I guess that was the first stage of me opening up about my depression,” said Adam. “That appointment brought me a sense of clarity because I had a better understanding of what was going on but it also brought a new set of problems in how to deal with it,” he added.
“I call my depression the black hood. Depending on what’s happening this hood can be anywhere on my head. At the minute and in general it lays limply on my shoulders.
“Sometimes if I’m stressed or sometimes for no particular reason at all it can start to rise up my neck. After three years I’m getting better at spotting this. When it’s in this position I know I need to do something to stop it rising on up.”
Adam admits farmers have a reputation of complaining a lot and it is a stigma he would like to get rid of.
“I hate it when farmers complain about how tough they get it,” he said. “Over the years we’ve built up a reputation as an occupation of moaners who are subsidised by the government and drive around in Land Rovers and big tractors crying that they are on the bread line.
“Farming is a demanding occupation, both physically but more so mentally, and is in the top ten professions for suicide in the UK. In a recent survey of farmers under 40, 81 percent of those questioned listed mental health as the current biggest challenge to the industry,” he said.
Adam’s wife Laura has been a tower of strength to help battle his depression, together with some professional help, and although the couple get on with daily life, she knows to look for the signs closer.
“Farming is a time consuming occupation,” she said. “Adam and I discuss everything in more detail these days and he will tell me if his mental health is suffering again.
“If that happens then all of us can go for a short break away from the farm to get away from it all which should help.”
Adam added: “Things are really good right now. We are building a new £150,000 house for the cows and I don’t have any thoughts about spending that money.
“Laura and Abel, with my wider family, are a good source of strength for me and we freely discuss everything which helps me a lot.
“Telling others about my depression was the hardest thing I have ever done but I can’t explain the release I felt after doing so.
“I really do encourage other farmers, or anyone suffering in silence, to speak out and not be one bit afraid to do so. It might just save your life!”
Dairy farmer and Fine Gael councillor Willie Aird was back milking cows on his farm in the centre of Portlaoise 30 minutes after results were announced that he topped the poll in the town’s local election.