End poor rural mental health

Unite fights govt's lack of care with courses

Reading time: 6 min

The government is showing a “worrying degree of complacency” when it comes to the issue of rural mental health according to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee in a statement this November.

In May EFRA published a report into Rural Mental Health that found that rural communities have lower levels of mental wellbeing than the population at large, and raised concerns on how isolation, poor public transport and a lack of decent digital connectivity have contributed to poor mental health for people working in the countryside, particularly farm workers and vets.

MPs found that rural workers face particular stresses, including unpredictable weather and animal health crises, while farmers feel the effect on their mental health from changing and uncertain government policies, and its impact on farm incomes.

The lack of decent public transport, which has continued to decline over recent years, has resulted in social and physical isolation, as well as making it hard for those in need to access mental health services.

The committee made a number of recommendations in the report but has raised its concerns after these were ignored by the government.

The recommendations included a call for a National Working Group on suicide prevention specific to agricultural and veterinary occupations, a joint Defra and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) rural mental health policy and delivery team, a consultation on the effectiveness of the Integrated care systems (ICS) model in providing mental health services to rural communities and that the Farm Resilience Fund prioritise providing mental health support.

The report also recommended that the government should fund and roll out mental health first aid training aimed at dealing with farmers and those working and living in rural industries and areas, and Defra should explore how farm workers and vets could take more time off work when they need it.

In response the government cited existing channels of support saying they were sufficient to safeguard rural mental health and said that the specific mental health needs of rural communities, “do not require targeted action and consider that existing provisions are sufficient to safeguard rural mental health.”

Chair of the EFRA committee, 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.”

Though the government has shown little interest in the mental health of rural workers Unite has always been there for its members and, through Unite Education, runs Mental Health Awareness training for reps.

Many of the recommendations in the report attempt to address issues that Unite has long recognised.

Bev Clarkson, Unite national officer food, drink and agriculture, said, “We share the committee’s concerns over complacency despite the government showing total disregard for the mental health of rural workers, and the wider wellbeing of countryside communities.

“Unite will continue to offer support to its members through its Mental Health Awareness training, its campaigns to improve rural bus services and its commitment to ensure all employers recognise workers need to be safe, both physically and mentally.”

Unite understands that workplace stress, and the poor mental health it can lead to, should not be ignored. It aims to support reps by providing tools that will help them reduce and prevent stress and promote good mental health in colleagues at work, as well as educating and increasing awareness about mental health issues.

As part of this support Unite Education runs extremely popular mental health awareness courses for workplace reps and stewards. It has also produced a practical resource “Mental health guide for reps and negotiators” which highlights how trade union negotiation can help reduce stress.

Suz Muna is one of the team of Unite Education tutors who have been delivering the MHA training to reps and is a Lecturer at City of Bristol College.

As a tutor Suz hears first-hand accounts of the stress many members face, and its damaging impact on their mental health.

Suz explained. “Reps tell us that loneliness and isolation can be a big factor in declining mental health. Some seek solace in addictive behaviours such as gambling, drinking or drugs, which in turn has a negative impact on their self-esteem, physical, and mental health.”

The consequences can be extreme, ultimately leading to workers contemplating suicide in some cases.

Throughout the training reps share experiences, good practice and ideas. Many say that this has helped identify support organisations, coping strategies and, most importantly, ways to negotiate better conditions with the employer to improve mental wellbeing at work.

The course also helps reps develop skills to support colleagues by recognising and understanding the symptoms of mental ill health, and highlights practical tools like mental health audits, mental health risk assessment, negotiating and campaigning skills.

Suz summed up. “The mental health awareness courses are good add-ons for workplace, health and safety, and equalities reps as they overlap with all three roles and I’d strongly recommend coming along to the training.”


Unite runs mental health awareness training in all its regions and to find out more go to the Unite Education website.

By Keith Hatch

This feature first appeared in the latest, the Winter 2023 edition of Landworker. Hard copies are available from your Unite regional office and a digital version will be available from next week on the Unite website, Food Drink and Agriculture page.