Written by Tony Whiting.
Covid 19 is not just a physical illness; it has also created lasting mental health problems because of the isolation caused by lockdowns in rural communities in North Yorkshire which were already under pressure before the pandemic struck.
This was a key message from a seminar on rural health and wellbeing held by Ripon Cathedral’s Rural Forum when speakers gave in-depth insights into the challenges faced by people in the countryside.
Chaired by the Very Reverend John Dobson, the Dean of Ripon, it heard from the Reverend Chris Lawton, Rector of the Lower Wensleydale Benefice and Chaplain to Leyburn Auction Mart, about problems facing the farming community. He said they included issues about the loss of loved ones, succession on the farm, the pressures of social media, and most recently, what he called “ the enormous long term effects from Covid 19,” particularly loneliness and the lack of social contact through people not being able to meet each other as they once had.
All this was against a background of some people feeling totally desperate. He told the forum that he was aware of 20 suicides within the deanery in seven years. He found references to people ‘committing suicide’ unhelpful as it had not been a crime for many years. Instead he preferred ‘completing suicide’, a tragic event that was a cry for help or a way of ending pain.
Colleen Allwood, Community First Yorkshire Project Development Officer, said national statistics showed that 45% of adults had experienced temporary loneliness recently compared with 39% before the pandemic. She said in many cases it was more of a problem for younger people than older people.
In response Community First Yorkshire had launched a Loneliness Campaign, Be Social, Be Well, to raise awareness and provide toolkits to help people reconnect with others. She added that despite Covid 19 being less of a threat to lives now, it still presented serious problems for many people who had been self-isolating or shielding and who worried about re-engaging with services and activities.
The next speaker was Dr. Caroline Knott, Consultant Psychologist for the Tees, Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust, who talked about the prevailing sense of stoicism summed up in the phrase ‘there’s nowt wrong with me, doc’. In reality, many farmers faced hazardous working conditions, exposure to pesticides, irregular incomes and feelings of low self-esteem. One farmer had told a survey “Farming takes over your life, no time off, no holidays. Farming is everything.”
Dr Knott spoke of symptoms of stress including body pain, anxiety, poor sleep patterns and feelings that your brain had seized up. Mental health concerns needed to be destigmatised and more resources were being devoted to dealing with these issues.
David Kerr, who works for the same NHS Trust, explained that community mental health teams were beginning to be embedded in GPs’ practices and in hubs located in community buildings. Fifty new roles in three years in York and North Yorkshire are being created for people to help those with mental health problems navigate their way more easily through the system.
Richard Betton, Northern Regional Director for the Farming Community Network, was the final speaker. The organisation provides a signposting service for help for farmers nationally and its volunteers work with around 6,000 of them a year. Its services are badly needed as 25% of farming families live below the poverty line and on average each week in the UK one farmer completes suicide. Richard knew of six cases in the region’s farming community within six months.
The organisation spreads the message that ‘it’s all right not to manage.’ Of those who call the helpline 03000 111 999, up to 40% need to talk about mental health issues, second only to those who ring about financial difficulties.
Richard, who is involved with his local church, said that the region’s 40 volunteers work very closely with vicars and ministers. “I feel I have a duty to help farmers, but not in a missionary zeal way,” he added.
The Dean, in thanking all speakers and attendees, reflected on the pressing importance of understanding and responding better to the challenges of mental illness, loneliness and despair. The importance of strong local community in providing potentially transformational support had been heard clearly. It was encouraging, he suggested, to hear the part played by partnership between churches, other faith communities, local voluntary organisations, and statutory bodies in building up community. With a membership of over 20 regional bodies (voluntary, public and private), the Ripon Cathedral Rural Forum will now focus on what more could be done to support those with mental illness and those who care for them.