As we have said, 2020 and 2021 have proved incredibly challenging for the UK’s farming industry. There were extreme weather conditions, poor harvests, supply chain shortages and a global pandemic to contend with but, through it all, farming endured as it always does but at what cost?
Many of us could confidently agree that the industry has been impacted by the pandemic but a recent Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project “Landscapes of Support: Farmer wellbeing and rural resilience through and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic” set out to discover how much, and how those that support farmers with their mental health have been affected.
We met up with Dr Faye Shortland, a human geography postdoctoral researcher working at the University of Reading who joined her colleague Dr David Rose as part of the project team to learn more about this research and how it can be used to create a system of support for the industry. We began by asking Faye to take us through the aims of the project and why it matters to her.
Faye explains: “The project brings together colleagues from around the country, and together we are working to better understand the impact that COVID-19 has had on farmers’ mental health. My interest in the topic began during my PhD at the University of Birmingham as mental health was often cited as a reason that farmers were struggling. The position has given me a chance to have a deeper look at both the context for farmers as well as the challenges that the global pandemic has had for them.”
The research began in March 2021 with a deep dive into what support is available for farmers, and what research had been done in this area. After this, the team conducted two surveys to gain a wider understanding of where and how farmers sought support for mental health struggles.
And what did they find?
According to Faye: “Our key findings are:
- Mental health had been a real concern for many involved in farming prior to the pandemic. We are starting from a baseline of poor mental health and wellbeing.
- The post-Brexit Agricultural Transition has made existing stressors worse, and the pandemic has heaped significant extra stressors onto farmers, who have experienced social isolation, supply chain issues, and other factors; often without any of the benefits of the pandemic through digital connectivity, changing work/life balance.
- Farming families have different experiences of mental health and this needs to be recognised in the tailored provision of support for rural, agricultural communities.
- Many support organisations have been unable to provide usual modes of delivering mental health support to farmers.
- Mental health training for farm advisers, and improving rural connectivity are key.
- Wider understanding and recognition of how organisations and networks help farmers, in order to better support farmer mental health and rural resilience through and beyond the pandemic.
Among the reasons cited by the support organisations were loneliness and social isolation (89%), family or relationship issues (87%), financial problems (82%), illness (75%), however a surprising number (66%) of farmers said that the pressure of regulations and inspections from government was the reason for needing support which suggests that the post-Brexit agricultural transition period is causing heightened stress for farmers.
Faye outlined the importance of conducting this research and why it is important for those living and working in rural communities?
“Research like this is important for those living and working in rural communities because it highlights where there are weaknesses in the provision of mental health support for them.
For example, we found that during the pandemic the top three barriers to effective support provision were: lack of face-to-face interaction, impact of COVID-19 on the ability to provide support (Self-isolation / lack of trained staff), and support services not having enough funding or fundraising stopping.”
The team have suggested ways to address these issues: “For example, through offering face-to-face mental health first aid training for all individuals (e.g. advisers) who come into contact with farmers, and ensuring that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and other devolved administrations play a role in supporting a joined-up landscape of support for farming mental health.”
One encouraging thing to come from the research was that farmers were generally aware of where support was available however, they faced multiple barriers that meant that a lot of them do not access this support.
We asked Faye why this was the case. She explained: “The routes which farmers take to get support are often indirect and informal due to their geographical isolation as well as social isolation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some farmers did not initially know about available support for mild or moderate issues – some of the feedback was that; ‘they might talk to vets, they might talk to feed merchants or those people who visit regularly’.
At the point of emergency, ‘they will then look for help elsewhere, to organisations like the Farming Community Network, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution, or one of the other organisations which are offering support – (Respondent 003)’.
Other barriers cited included cultural (e.g., pride and associated stigma), occupational (e.g., long working hours, lone working) and time (e.g., time on the farm is precious).
But what next? Having gathered such insightful data, what can we do with it to improve the support available in the industry?
According to Faye; “We hope that these insights can help farmers and those that support them to create a better system of support for these key workers. We hope that the research will ensure that there are strategies identified in the farming community to normalise conversations around mental health in order to help reduce stigma as a barrier to help-seeking behaviour.
She also hopes that; “Support services are designed and accessible for those in rural areas. The urgent short-term need to plug the funding gap associated with the pandemic is filled and rural broadband is improved urgently as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the digital divide.”
As the project draws to a close, Faye, Dr Rose and the team have begun to share their findings to try to help make a difference to the support available. In a workshop held this week, support organisations, policy makers from across the UK and researchers met to discuss the findings and recommendations. The team hope that these recommendations can be adopted by Government as long-term policies to help rural communities. The full report is expected in Spring 2022.
To learn more about the research visit: https://research.reading.ac.uk/landscapes-of-support/