Impact of COVID on farmers' mental health explored in new study

·3-min read

London, Feb 16 (PTI) Researchers from the University of Sheffield, University of Reading and Exeter University will work with farmers and the organisations involved in supporting them in the UK to understand how the spread of COVID-19 has affected agricultural workers and their mental ill health.

The new study has received 190,000 pounds in funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19, and will investigate the experiences of farmers, the challenges that farming-help charities have faced in providing support and the to meet farmers’ needs.

The team will also explore how the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and other bodies can better target support for farmers and rural communities in times of crisis.

'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 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,' said Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield.

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

He 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 well-being 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.' 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 per cent of farmers under the age of 40 believe poor mental health is the biggest hidden problem that they and their peers are facing today.

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.

'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,' said Dr Jude McCann, CEO of The Farming Community Network. PTI HSR ZH ZH