Government 'worryingly complacent' over rural mental health issues

A new report by a cross party group of MPs found that rural workers including farmers face particular stresses
A new report by a cross party group of MPs found that rural workers including farmers face particular stresses

MPs have accused the government of having a 'worrying degree of complacency' over rural mental health issues, as farmers particularly struggle with isolation and lack of connectivity.

The EFRA committee’s report found that rural workers including farmers face particular stresses, including unpredictable weather and animal health crises.

They also face changing and uncertain government policies which can affect their incomes as well as their mental health.

MPs expressed concern about how isolation, poor public transport and a lack of digital connectivity have contributed to poor mental health outcomes for all rural people, but especially among farm workers and vets.

Vets, who regularly deal with animal mortality, epidemics and disturbing situations around TB testing, are especially affected by stress, the report states.

A survey in 2018 of British Veterinary Association members found that 77% of those surveyed had been concerned about a colleague or fellow student’s mental health and wellbeing.

The government did not accept EFRA's calls to establish a National Working Group on suicide prevention specific to agriculture, claiming that their Suicide Prevention Strategy, published in September, encompasses those living in rural areas.

Rejecting the recommendation for a joint Defra rural mental health policy and delivery team to ensure ‘rural proofing’ of health policy, the government says "we believe existing channels would be a more effective way of achieving this."

On the mental health of young people, the committee made a headline recommendation of ensuring that all schools and colleges in rural areas have MHSTs (Mental Health Support Teams), by 2026/27.

The government states that MHSTs ‘will cover at least 50% of pupils in England by the end of the 2024 to 2025 financial year’. However, it is unclear how many of these will be in rural areas.

MPs who sit on the committee also made a range of recommendations pertaining to mental health and crisis events, such as flooding.

The government told EFRA it has no plans for upgrading local preparedness for rural mental health following crises events, signposting websites on flooding and mental health, and says that the local mental health care provision currently in place is sufficient.

MPs who sit on the committee also recommended a dedicated rural mental health care funding stream, which could be quickly accessed during and after crisis events. However, the government says there are no plans for this.

And calls were rejected for a training programme specific to rural mental health provision, with the government claiming that training currently in place is sufficient.

Chair of EFRA, Sir Robert Goodwill, said the committee was hopeful that the government would recognise the distinct needs and circumstances of the rural population.

"We are disappointed by its rejection of measures to support the specific and identifiable mental health needs of those who live in rural areas," he said.

“With this response the government demonstrates a worrying degree of complacency on the issue and so will fail to confront the significant problem of improving rural mental health.”