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The research team will work with farmers and organisations involved in supporting them to understand how the spread of the coronavirus has affected agricultural workers and their resilience to mental ill health.

Farmer mental health hit during Covid focus of new research

Farmers mental health and resilience and the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic will be the focus of a major new research project.

The project has received £190k in funding from the Economic and Social Research Council(ESRC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid.

The research team will work with farmers and organisations involved in supporting them to understand how the spread of the coronavirus has affected agricultural workers and their resilience to mental ill health.

A team from the University of Reading, the University of Exeter and the University of Sheffield will be looking at the experiences of farmers and the challenges that farming help charities have faced in providing support. Researchers will also be exploring how Defra and other bodies can better target support for farmers and rural communities in times of crisis.

Professor Matt Lobley, Director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research, University of Exeter said:

”We are leading an extensive programme of research on the health and well-being of the agricultural community. This new project will complement our existing work by helping us to better understand the range of ‘farming help’ organisations, the support they offer and how they themselves have been impacted by the pandemic.”

“It is often overlooked that farmers are key workers. Understanding to help them become more resilient is important at any time and even more so during the pandemic”

Dr David Rose, Elizabeth Creak Associate Professor of Agricultural Innovation and Extension at the University of Reading will be leading the project. Dr Rose said:

“We already know that farmers’ mental health and wellbeing is a major challenge. Working long hours in a stressful job and often in isolation, and four in five agricultural workers recognise that poor mental health is a major issue facing the sector.

“The global pandemic has clearly had a major impact on mental health and wellbeing for many in society, and thanks to the funding from UKRI we can really unpick the extent of that impact for farmers and rural communities more widely. We know that key sources of support for rural communities – friends in the pub, agricultural shows, on-farm demonstrations – have been unavailable for many during the pandemic.

“Many of the scarring effects of COVID in rural communities will have a long lag time before struggling individuals seek help. So these figures might be a sign of worse things to come. The project isn’t just about better understanding the effect of the pandemic either, as we will be working with key charities and organisations to work out what has worked to support farmers and what the Government can do to better protect them in future crises.”

Farmers and rural communities have been benefitting from the support of charities and civic society organisations during the pandemic. The new research will be working with organisations to understand the extent of that support and what barriers they are facing to meeting farmers’ needs.

The Farm Safety Foundation research suggests that many agricultural workers report struggling with mental health. A recent survey conducted by the organisation found that over 80 percent of farmers under the age of 40 believe poor mental health is the biggest hidden problem that they and their peers are facing today.

Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sheffield said: 

“Covid-19 has hit at a time when agricultural communities are already facing the most substantial changes to the industry in a generation. Brexit uncertainties coupled with Covid isolation make it all the more important to understand how farming and rural organisations are helping to support individuals in responding to these ‘shocks’ and transitions.

“Our previous research on ‘harder to reach’ farmers and land managers, conducted with University of Reading, underlines the importance of engaging with these communities to make sure that people are not isolated and left behind.” 

In October 2020, The Farming Community Network, a national charity which supports farmers and farming families in England and Wales, noted that nearly half of the calls to its helpline in the preceding four months related to mental health due to stress caused by Brexit, Covid-19, financial concerns and other issues. 

Dr Jude McCann, CEO of The Farming Community Network, said: “For some within the farming community, the Covid-19 pandemic has heightened feelings of stress, anxiety and other forms of mental ill-health. The cancellation of many events in the farming calendar, as well as limitations on being able to travel and visit others, can exacerbate feelings of isolation and loneliness, and accessing face-to-face support has been made more challenging.”

Date: 16 February 2021

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