A year ago, I wrote ‘All things bright and beautiful’, exploring the issue of poor mental health and suicide in rural communities (issue 104, BACP Workplace). It generated considerable interest and I connected with those who are most invested in supporting the rural workforce. It’s essential that support exists, because too many of those whose livelihoods are in farming are living a hand-to-mouth existence, often just one crisis away from financial disaster and the psychological cost that comes with it.
Since then, farming has rarely been out of the news, with concerns over the pandemic and the impact of Brexit dominating the headlines. Other issues for farmers over the succession of their farms, changes in policy and societal demands, isolation, inequality, challenges with disabilities, sexuality, and gender stereotyping are all placing increased pressure on farm workers and putting them at greater risk of mental ill health. In a recent study by the Farm Safety Foundation,1 mental health issues among farmers and agricultural workers were identified as a growing concern and as having a direct impact on the safety of farms. It found that 88% of farmers under the age of 40 now rank poor mental health as the biggest hidden problem facing farmers today, which has increased from 82% in 2018.
For some, it’s all too much. The latest figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS)2 in 2019 report that there were 102 registered suicides in the rural workforce in England and Wales, and 31 in Scotland. These include farmers, managers, proprietors of agriculture-related services and those working in agricultural-related trades and occupations. This supports the results of a Farm Safety Network survey, which reveals that one farmer dies each week as a result of suicide.3
The impact of COVID-19
The early months of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 had far-reaching consequences for the rural workforce. Farmers, farmworkers and vets were all named on key worker lists, allowing them to continue working, which was one of the only positives. With UK farming so deeply integrated into global and EU supply chains (over 90% of our sheep meat exports go to the EU),4 the disruptive impact of closed borders due to the pandemic had severe financial repercussions. Along with import/export issues, the virus affected the supply of seasonal labour and domestic markets, lamb and beef prices fell as local restaurants and national chains, including McDonald’s, locked down. Milk prices were initially affected due to school closures and hotels and restaurants not buying, which led to thousands of litres of milk literally going down the drain.
Financial impacts aside, disruptions to everyday life took their toll. The cancellation of important events in the farming calendar, as well as limitations on being able to travel and visit others, served to exacerbate the feelings of isolation and loneliness common in rural communities, and accessing face-to-face support was made even more challenging.
Reflecting on the mental health impact of the coronavirus pandemic, Dr Jude McCann, Chief Executive of the Farming Community Network, said: ‘For some within the farming community, the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened feelings of stress, anxiety and other forms of mental ill health.’5
What has changed?
It’s positive that in the last 12 months, mental ill health in farming has received growing attention, with further research and awareness-raising campaigns. The Farm Safety Foundation’s fourth annual Mind Your Head campaign, in February 2021, highlighted the actions being taken to break down mental health barriers in farming, with young farmers in particular believing that talking about mental health in farming will help remove any stigma attached to it.
Research recently commissioned by the National Rural Mental Health Forum and Support in Mind Scotland (SiMS)6 showed that 93% of people living and working in marginalised rural communities believe that the COVID-19 pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. The report, launched in February 2021, focuses on the experiences of LGBT+ people, young carers and refugees and asylum seekers living in rural Scotland. Two of the key issues it highlights are the loss of face-to-face contact and a lack of access to local support.
Next in this issue...
�A major new study will work with agricultural communities to understand the impacts of the pandemic on farmers’ mental health. Researchers from the University of Reading, the University of Sheffield and Exeter University will work with farmers and the organisations involved in supporting them to understand how the spread of COVID-19 has affected agricultural workers and their mental health. Encouragingly, the team will also explore how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and other bodies can better target support for farmers and rural communities in times of crisis – including counselling services.7
Dr David Rose, the Project Lead at the University of Reading, recognises that civil society organisations, including charities and faith groups, have been involved in supporting farming communities. He says: ‘Our project will seek to understand what challenges they are facing in delivering support, whether there are gaps in provision, and how Defra and the wider Government can help deliver better support to boost resilience in and beyond the pandemic.’ BACP welcomes the development of an evidence base, which will be vitally important in supporting our calls to increase funding in rural mental health provision, ensuring a fairer and more proportionate settlement is made available across the four nations of the UK.
Rural charities have seen the demand for support services increase during the pandemic, with the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI) reporting that the majority of new enquiries to its helpline have come from working farmers.
Responding to the increasing demand from farming people, RABI is extending its freephone helpline this autumn, to provide the farming community with a 24-hour service.8 Most of the farmers who have contacted RABI for help have been indirectly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with loss of off-farm income, low prices and the need to self-isolate being the main reasons for getting in touch.
Alongside the helpline, as part of its plans to evolve services to better meet the changing needs of farming people, RABI recently launched an online wellbeing platform. The platform includes online support and counselling provided by BACP accredited services, Kooth and Qwell, aimed at under and over 18s respectively.
Alicia Chivers, RABI’s Chief Executive, says: ‘We know farmers have continued to face exceptionally difficult times. Managing mental wellbeing and maintaining good mental health has emerged as one of the most significant issues facing our sector, which is already known for its higher-than-average levels of stress, depression, anxiety and suicide.’
The Daniel Picton Jones Foundation, an organisation dedicated to addressing the disproportionate rates of suicide in agriculture, has been at the forefront of helping farmers and people living in isolated rural areas. Its services, which include a 24/7 telephone helpline and face-to-face counselling, have enabled over 350 people across the whole of Wales to access counselling since the service was established in 2018.9 For those working therapeutically within farming communities, these issues are, sadly, all too familiar.
The world has changed so much as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many of us will be beathing a cautious sigh of relief and regaining our former freedoms, farmers and rural workers may not be so fortunate. The pandemic has highlighted the tightrope on which UK agriculture so tenuously balances and which will continue, as farmers hope – as they so often do – that forces largely outside of their control will not (again) conspire against their efforts to bounce back from adversity. It’s positive to know that they are not quite so alone this time.
Supporting them through these unparalleled hardships is a network of organisations, such as RABI, which is working to break down the stigma that surrounds mental health and provide support services for those in rural communities. Counselling can play a key role in helping farmers and farm workers through these considerable challenges, with BACP members like Lorna Wiggins already leading the way.
The unique context in which farming takes place presents many challenges for both farm workers and therapists, but within an environment that for many is its own reward. BACP will continue to shine a light on the vitally important topic of mental health in farming, working with stakeholders across the UK to promote the value of counselling and to identify and close gaps in provision. As always, BACP wants to hear from our members working in this arena, contributing their highly valued expertise, so that you can help inform and shape our work.
Your feedback please
If you have thoughts about any of the issues raised in this article, we would like to hear from you. Please email the editor: email@example.com
1 www.yellowwellies.org/mental-health-the-next-pandemic-tackling-the-biggest-hidden-problem-facing-farmers-today/ (accessed 26 May 2021).
2 www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2019registrations (accessed 26 May 2021).
3 www.yellowwellies.org/suicide-the-last-stigma-of-mental-health/ (accessed 26 May 2021).
4 www.marshcommercial.co.uk/articles/farming-the-coronavirus-impact/ (accessed 26 May 2021).
5 www.reading.ac.uk/news-and-events/releases/PR854193.aspx (26 May 2021).
6 www.supportinmindscotland.org.uk/news/marginalised-rural-report (26 May 2021).
7 www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/impact-covid-farmers-mental-health-explored-new-study (26 May 2021).
8 https://rabi.org.uk/rabi-to-introduce-24-7-helpline-for-farming-people/(26 May 2021).
9 www.thedpjfoundation.co.uk/getting-help/ (26 May 2021)