Siobhan O'Connor
Dr O'Connor started looking at mental health and help-seeking in athletes before moving on to the farming community

Dr Siobhan O’Connor finds fulfilment in farmer mental health intervention study

East Cork born Dr Siobhan O’Connor, at the school of health and human performance found working on an intervention tailored to help improve farmers mental health was both personally and professionally rewarding.

"I started in this area looking at mental health and help-seeking in athletes,” said Dr O’Connor. “From the findings of this project, I really started thinking about other populations that also, similar to athletes, have a really high-stress occupation."

“Where a job can sometimes be more than a job and can require a lot of hours and other requirements beyond your typical 9 to 5. That started me applying this research into other populations like healthcare professionals and farming.”

As a child, growing up on a farm in east Cork, Dr O’Connor loved the freedom and space to play and being surrounded by animals, especially in lambing and calving season. She has been living in Dublin for 15 years but regularly takes her son Darach back to the family farm, where he loves to collect eggs from the chickens and to pick potatoes.

She treasures the values that were instilled in her growing up on a farm, and how it teaches people about the importance of hard work, and helping the family with farm tasks. These days, too, however, she acknowledges there can be negatives associated with farming. Money can be tight, and there is pressure in trying to maintain a family, lifestyle and business all in one.


Farming is a unique job, said Dr. O’Connor, because it is a blending of family, home, land, lifestyle, and business. These days there are significant administration and financial demands, and many farmers are also managing full-time or part-time jobs, off farm, in order to make ends meet.

It has always been considered an essential job in Ireland, but there is more negative commentary around farming these days, she said, particularly on the topic of climate change. Farmers must also cope with market fluctuations, poor profit margins, animal disease, and increasingly unpredictable weather.


Dr. O’Connor and her colleagues recruited 351 farmers from across Ireland from all types of farming – including tillage, beef, sheep, poultry, and organic – for her study of the state of farmers’ mental health. She also conducted 18 interviews and ran focus groups involving farmers and other stakeholders.

The big finding of the study is sobering. One in two farmers had poor sleep, one in four are burnt out and one in three are drinking at a harmful level.

The study also found that poor sleepers and burnt-out farmers displayed higher mental health and physical health issues. Being burnt out and having poor sleep can lead to farmers making quick and poor judgments on the farm, which can potentially lead to accidents. It can also negatively impact their quality of life and their relationships with their family.

It found that 71% of farmers would seek professional help if they were experiencing a mental breakdown, while 54% didn’t know how to contact a local mental health clinic, and a quarter didn’t know where to go to receive mental health services, or how to get a suicide prevention hotline number.

The researchers found that farmers with mental health or substance use issues were less likely to seek help, while 30% believed that counseling is a last resort. Some two in five farmers believed it was admirable to cope with problems alone, without seeking professional help, while farmers were also more likely to look for help from those closest to them, whether spouse, family, or friend.

“It is really important that farmers know how to recognise the signs that someone is struggling and are aware of the available supports so they can direct them to them,” said Dr. O’Connor.


Dr. O’Connor said that farmers would prefer we have designed a short – less than 30 minutes – in-person intervention that will take place in discussion groups across the country. This was designed, said Dr. O’Connor to facilitate discussion with farmers about how we can recognise the signs of someone struggling, how they should seek help, and how we can support resilience.

“We also provide them with a handout for their fridge for use if they ever need it in the future with a family member or friend in distress. We also will have a supplementary website with all the information included that goes into more detail,” said Dr O’Connor.

“We also have – really importantly – farmer stories where an Irish farmer goes through how they sought help for their mental health and how that benefitted them. That is a really key part of this whole intervention in helping ensure that the farmer’s voice rings through.”

It is important that the farmers themselves have directed the content and the format of the entire intervention said Dr O’Connor. Farmers want to engage in help that understands the farming way of life, she said, and want help from someone with cultural literacy and rural empathy.


“This research has been one of the most personally rewarding projects that I have been involved in. It has been so exciting to give farmers a voice and to let them direct and tell us how we can help and support them. Farmers are a passionate group and our whole team is really excited to roll out this intervention and help support farmers that may be in need.”

“I think this is an area that farmers are very passionate about. They really expressed a desire to improve the mental health and support available for farmers out there. I really think this is a good step in this direction, but really there needs to be an overarching consideration of the issues facing farmers in general with structural changes that address the financial, climate weather changes and administrative requirements facing farmers.”

“It is also important for ourselves and all farmers to check in now only with ourselves, but with all of those in our farming community, including our family and farmer friends.”