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Research to explore farmers’ experiences of isolation, loneliness and mental health issues

New research led by the University of Exeter and national rural charity The Farming Community Network (FCN) aims to explore how social isolation, loneliness and mental health issues within the farming community are experienced and managed – and how to improve support available.

The research, titled ‘Loneliness, social isolation and mental health in farming communities: An analysis of social and cultural factors’, will be conducted by the Centre for Rural Policy Research (CRPR) at the University of Exeter, and is scheduled to conclude September 2021.

As part of the research, a series of qualitative interviews will be conducted with farmers and members of their families in Devon and Cornwall to better understand how different aspects of a farmer’s work, life and physical environment can lead to them experiencing heightened feelings of stress, anxiety and loneliness.

Matt Lobley, Professor of Rural Resource Management and Director of the CRPR at the University of Exeter, said: “Changes in farming over a number of decades mean it is an increasingly solitary and lonely activity. Wider societal changes also mean that farmers and members of farming families can experience social and cultural isolation. For some this isn’t necessarily a problem but for others it can be associated with deteriorating well-being and metal health issues.

“At a time when the mental well-being of the farming community is a topic of increasing interest and awareness, this research will help us understand more about pathways from isolation and loneliness to metal health issues and will help inform future interventions to support farming families.”

Dr Rebecca Wheeler, a Research Fellow with the CRPR, said: “At a time when pressures on farming are mounting, it is vital that we listen to farmers and farm families about the challenges they are facing and how these are affecting their mental health and wider wellbeing.  The research seeks to understand these issues so that we can ensure the individuals and businesses that produce our food can remain viable and prosper into the future.”

During the project, which is supported by the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health research network, funded by UK Research and Innovation, the researchers will work in partnership with FCN to ensure that the research is sensitively designed and that recommendations for further support are applicable. 

FCN is a national charity providing practical and pastoral support to farming families in England and Wales. Through its 400 volunteers and its national Helpline (03000 111 999), FCN provides an important service to the farming community. Many cases presenting to FCN contain a mental health component, which can be exacerbated by issues such as financial difficulties, relationship problems and fears and uncertainties around the future.

Dr Jude McCann, CEO of FCN, said: “This research presents an important opportunity to hear directly from members of the farming community about the key issues they experience, both personally and as part of their farming businesses, and how they manage these challenges and stay resilient.

“Through FCN’s Helpline (03000 111 999) we regularly hear from farmers and their families experiencing a range of issues which require different approaches and recommendations. We hope this research will help to better understand these experiences and will inform interventions for how to improve the support that is available to those in need.”

A series of workshops are also planned as part of the research project, with the research team working closely with a range of rural charities and public health professionals from Cornwall and Devon to help inform the questions asked at interview and to better understand the scope and nature of issues affecting the farming community.

More information about the research is available here:

This project has been funded by the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health research network. This network is funded by UK Research and Innovation and their support is gratefully acknowledged (Grant reference: ES/S004440/1). Any views expressed here are those of the project investigators and do not necessarily represent the views of the Loneliness & Social Isolation in Mental Health research network or UKRI.

Date: 18 September 2020

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