Westminster has rejected EFRA’s calls for targeted action to safeguard mental health needs of England’s rural communities

Responding today (3 November) to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee’s (EFRA) recent rural mental health report, the government has stated that the mental health needs of rural communities do not require targeted action, and said it considers that existing provisions are sufficient to safeguard rural mental health.

EFRA’s rural mental health report, published in May, found that rural workers face particular stresses, including unpredictable weather and animal health crises, as well as changing and uncertain government policies which can affect their incomes as well as their mental health.

Also in the report, the committee expressed deep concern about how isolation, poor public transport and a relative lack of digital connectivity have contributed to poor mental health outcomes for all categories of people across rural communities in England, but especially among farm workers and vets.

However, the government did not accept the committee’s calls to establish a National Working Group on suicide prevention specific to agricultural and veterinary occupations, claiming that their Suicide Prevention Strategy, published in September, encompasses those living in rural areas.

Rejecting the committee’s recommendation for a joint DEFRA/DHSC rural mental health policy and delivery team to ensure ‘rural proofing’ of health policy, the government said “we believe existing channels would be a more effective way of achieving this”.

The government also turned down  calls for integrated interventions with the Department of Transport and the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology, aiming to improve access to rural mental health services, while citing a ‘range of actions’, reported in their June policy paper, Unleashing Rural Opportunities.

Commenting on the government’s response, EFRA chair Sir Robert Goodwill said: “Our committee was hopeful that the government would recognise the distinct needs and circumstances of the rural population and would follow our carefully considered recommendations to support and protect them. While we recognise that the government has taken measures to support the mental health of the general population, we are 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. 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.”