It is no secret that rural communities are often overlooked in government policy; however, the UK Government’s rejection of the recommendations by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee highlights the alarming complacency shown towards these areas.
A silent mental health crisis is taking place in these communities as they grapple with a profound lack of mental health support, feelings of isolation, and weak public transport and digital connectivity.
EFRA’s recent report sheds light on an unsettling reality: as mental health services in urban areas improve, rural communities carry on unnoticed, their struggles ignored. Within this overlooked demographic, farm workers and vets are particularly vulnerable and suffer greatly without the proper support in place. The inherent uncertainty of farming, such as struggling with animal morality and constant stress about financial instability, creates a breeding ground for poor mental health.
Mental health in agriculture is the elephant in the room. No one really wants to talk about loneliness, anxiety, or suicide; however, it is there, and many are increasingly worried that it’s getting worse.
A survey on mental health conducted by the Farm Safety Foundation UK from 2021 revealed staggering figures with only 55% of farmers feeling positive about their mental health and poor mental health being 46% higher in farmers than any other occupation. Another survey from the Office for National Statistics in August 2021 found that almost one in five adults living in rural areas were likely to be experiencing some form of depression, compared with one in ten before the pandemic.
Uncontrollable events that wreak havoc on a farmer’s income, such as outbreaks of animal diseases, are a constant threat, not only affecting the livelihood of farmers but also having a detrimental effect on entire families due to stress and uncertainty. The burden to deliver the terrible news of such events is placed on vets, who work alongside farmers and often have a close relationship with them. Bearing this burden is very distressing and further underscores the toll on mental health within this interconnected community.
Moreover, the long working hours intrinsic to farming life make it all the more difficult to access services. This, coupled with the lack of targeted mental health resources, places a disproportionate burden on already strained services like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), further discouraging those in need from seeking help.
The prevailing culture of silence and resilience within the farming community compounds these challenges. A lack of open dialogue surrounding mental health prevents the sharing of burdens and finding collective solutions. It is absolutely necessary to break down these barriers and encourage a culture whereby farmers feel supported in addressing their concerns.
The implications of this neglect are far-reaching. The Government’s rejection of recommendations to establish a National Working Group on Suicide Prevention for these professions reveals a failure to recognise the unique needs of this vital segment of the population. The existing suicide prevention strategy is deemed sufficient by the Government, yet given the blatant suffering experienced by rural communities, it is obviously inadequate.
As we reap the benefits of rural labour, it is imperative that we acknowledge the struggles faced by a crucial pillar of our society. The Government must act decisively and reconsider these proposals to bridge the gap in mental health support for rural communities. A “one size fits all” approach is not adequate to support all segments of the population and targeted programmes must be established to meet specific needs and foster a culture of openness. Mental health services are a priority and must be accessible for everyone; no one should be left to suffer based on their profession or where they live.
It is so important to encourage a culture within agriculture that explicitly recognises how the job can, and does, impact the wellbeing of everyone living and working in it and how poor mental health can have a direct and deadly impact on the job. Given the year we have just experienced, making sure we are all looking after our physical and mental well-being has never been more relevant.
Dr Emelina Ellis is the chief clinical operations officer at Spectrum.Life