The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has called for greater planning and action from the government to address the issue of poor mental health outcomes for people across rural communities in England in its report published this week.
MPs expressed concern about the findings which identified isolation, poor public transport and a relative lack of digital connectivity as contributing to the issue. Relative poverty in rural areas can exacerbate poor mental wellbeing and rural workers, including farmers, face stresses including weather, animal health crises and changing government policies which also contribute to the problem.
A lack of detailed data and under-reporting of rural deprivation has led to an incomplete picture, which the committee said needs to be rectified for meaningful action to be planned. Despite this, the report says the clear pattern where rural communities’ needs are not fully catered for by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) cannot be denied. It highlights evidence which indicates that agricultural and veterinary workers have a higher-than-average suicide rate when compared to the wider population.
The report is critical of Defra, which conceded to the Committee that the disparate, localised way mental health services were delivered in rural areas made it “challenging” to “generate useful insights”.
Key recommendations from the report include:
- Defra and DHSC should establish a new joint rural mental health policy and delivery team to improve access to and outcomes for rural mental health services.
- Defra should take a more active role in national suicide prevention policy, with agricultural and veterinary workers being recognised as high priorities for action, and UK Government funding for local authority suicide prevention work needs to be ring-fenced.
- The government should relieve intense pressure on the delivery of NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) by expanding preventive mental health support into all schools and colleges in rural areas, and by supporting Early Support Hubs.
- Defra and DHSC should upgrade local preparedness for the mental health impacts of extreme events such as flooding and animal health crises.
- The Government should fund and roll out mental health first aid training aimed at creating a critical mass of front-line personnel dealing with farmers and those working and living in rural industries and areas.
- Defra should explore how farm workers and vets could take more time off work when they need it – by for example encouraging sickness insurance schemes.
- Defra, DHSC, the NHS and the Department for Transport should set out rural transport policies that provide rural communities with access to health services that is as good as the access urban communities enjoy.
Sir Robert Goodwill, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said: “Rural communities face a unique set of challenges. High on the list are limited access to mental health services, poor public transport and unpredictable crises like animal diseases. All this has an inevitable toll on peoples’ mental health – and yet the mental health services people in rural areas can access are few and far between.
“Rural mental health needs to be a top priority for Defra – and the Department should take the lead on this report’s recommendations for much more joined-up action across government.”