Rural mental health must be top of our agenda
Twenty-one years ago, I was a long way away from the green leather benches and procedure of the Commons chamber – instead, as a Veterinary Surgeon, I was surrounded by the destruction of the Foot and Mouth Crisis.
Back then I oversaw some of the mass farm animal culls that came to represent the tragic events; devastating memories which are still etched in the back of my mind.
Apart from the dreadful animal consequences, seeing the impact this crisis had on people, it brought home to me some of uniquely challenging factors facing the mental health of rural communities up and down the nation. Hoping to consign this kind of devastation to the history books, I was spurred to run for office. I now represent England’s largest constituency, and one of its most rural, Penrith and The Border.
More than a third of farmers in the UK admitted to being possibly or probably depressed according to an industry survey and the Farm Safety Foundation report that that one farmer a week in the UK tragically dies by suicide.
While the animal pyres and burials of 2001 are behind us, their impact is still felt in our rural communities. Obstacles to mental health provision are present. Indeed, with communities prone to shock events like flooding, storms and animal disease outbreaks, combined with poor connectivity and poorer access to mental health services, the rural UK faces drastic problems that have taken a back seat for too long. As such, as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee, I was keen to trigger an Inquiry into Rural Mental Health, which is now in full swing – shining a light on the long-overlooked issues that affect our countryside communities.
At the heart of the matter is the fact some rural industries are over-represented when it comes to mental health issues and the incidence of suicide. As a vet, I sadly know first-hand that we as a profession have a much higher than average incidence of suicide. Furthermore, more than a third of farmers in the UK admitted to being possibly or probably depressed according to an industry survey and the Farm Safety Foundation report that that one farmer a week in the UK tragically dies by suicide. Some of this may stem from the huge pressures facing farmers that they have little control over such as disease outbreaks, extreme weather events and fluctuating market prices.
Nobody doubts that farmers are a hardy bunch, having to show great resilience. That said, the stereotype of the tough farmer who works all hours can be a problematic one and it’s time those in the industry were encouraged to care for their own physical and mental health as well as they care for their livestock and farms.
But mental health can still a taboo subject for communities, rural or not. Our EFRA Inquiry has taken evidence that folk in rural communities are reluctant to seek out help, as they are well known locally and do not want to show signs of vulnerability. Gaining parity of esteem between physical and mental health is a priority for me.
With mental health support often concentrated in urban centres, it can be challenging for those in remote areas to get the help they need. With often poor rural transport links and poor digital connectivity, rural isolation becomes a major triggering factor for mental health issues.
That is why our EFRA Committee inquiry is so important and I’ve been heartened by the testimonies from community mental health specialists, charities and industry experts – even with the often-troubling subject matter. The fact we are able to highlight the struggles facing rural communities is very important. With this in mind, I’ve decided to run for the Chair of the EFRA Committee, where rural mental health is one of my key priorities.
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