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Government has “worrying degree of complacency” towards rural mental health, MPs say

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has expressed concern over failure to address high suicide rates in countryside communities.

By Zoë Grünewald

The government has rejected several proposals from a cross-party committee of MPs that were aimed at improving the mental health and suicide rates of those living in rural areas.

In May 2023, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published a number of conclusions and recommendations for government after a long-running inquiry into the mental health of people who live outside towns and cities. The committee highlighted the specific stresses and risk factors that rural workers face, including geographical and social isolation, stress and uncertainty, and financial insecurity and addiction, among others.

In June last year, the committee heard from Jacqui Morrissey, assistant director of research and influencing at the mental health charity Samaritans. She told MPs that the risk of death by suicide was 1.7 times higher for agricultural workers than for the general population. A 2018 report by the British Veterinary Association also found that 77 per cent of those surveyed had been concerned about a colleague or fellow student’s mental health and wellbeing.

Because of this the committee called on the government to commit to several new policies, the first being the implementation of a national working group on suicide prevention specific to agricultural and veterinary occupations. However, it rejected that recommendation in its response, stating that its Suicide Prevention Strategy, published in September this year, already includes those living in rural areas.

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The committee had called for integrated work across different government departments to reduce instances of poor mental health and suicide in rural areas, which was also refused. Rejecting the committee’s recommendation for a joint rural mental health policy and delivery team between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), the government said that “existing channels would be a more effective way of achieving this”.

The government also turned down calls for more joined-up working with the Department for Transport and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to improve access to rural mental health services. Instead, it pointed to a “range of actions” it had committed to in its June policy paper, “Unleashing rural opportunities”, such as improving broadband access across rural areas.

A range of recommendations were also made by the committee pertaining to mental health and crisis events, such as flooding. The government said that it had no plans for upgrading local preparedness for rural populations’ mental health following such events, and instead signposted to governmental websites on flooding and mental health, and argued that current local mental health care provision is sufficient.

The government also rejected a proposal from the committee to create a dedicated rural mental healthcare funding stream that could be accessed quickly during and after crisis events, stating that Defra and DHSC already recognise the need to ensure that this support is provided.  

Robert Goodwill, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said that although the committee had been “hopeful” that the government would recognise the “distinct needs and circumstances of the rural population”, it was “disappointed by its rejection of measures to support the specific and identifiable mental health needs of those who live in rural areas”.

“This was an opportunity to make significant changes which could greatly impact our rural communities,” 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.” 

[See also: The Covid inquiry has laid bare the government’s dereliction of duty]

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