Supporting farming communities at times of uncertainty

This guide aims to support farming communities at times of uncertainty, by providing an action framework to support the mental health and well-being of farmers and their families.

Farmers and those living in rural communities in Wales are facing a period of significant uncertainty, in the short to medium term, with a potential negative impact on their mental health and well-being. In such times, efforts to address the underlying causes of anxiety and distress, and support mental health and well-being should be intensified.

This guide was created by Public Health Wales and the Mental Health Foundation.

The aim of this research programme was to develop a framework to support the mental health and well-being of farmers at times of uncertainty, and consider how it could be translated into action. To inform the framework, we combined an evidence review of the international literature from the past ten years, with the collective views of 45 stakeholders from across the farming sector in Wales.

Key findings

Improving the mental health and well-being of farmers and their families is of considerable importance, enhancing the resilience needed to manage and overcome uncertainty. A preventative approach is required that includes: preventing uncertainty and the challenges from adversity, protecting against the potential impact of those challenges on mental health and well-being, and promoting mental health and well-being amongst farmers and farming communities to strengthen resilience.

Preventing uncertainty and challenge from adversity, and protecting against the impact on mental health and well-being (Section 4.1)

Reflections from the stakeholder engagement identified six key uncertainties and challenges facing farmers in Wales, and potential approaches to prevent and protect against the impact on mental health and well-being.

  • The key challenge, in relation to Brexit, was the uncertainty and viability of farming in Wales (Section 4.1.1).
  • However, many other challenges extended beyond Brexit, including succession planning (Section 4.1.2), regulation, administration and digitalisation (Section 4.1.3), prioritising their own health (Section 4.1.4), isolation and loneliness (Section 4.1.5) and the underlying culture and expectations in farming (Section 4.1.6).
  • Solutions largely focused on the need for better awareness of the support available, working across organisations to recognise stress and anxiety, and for farmer-led, peer-to-peer solutions including the need for a cultural shift in accessing and accepting support, for both business and health concerns (Figure 2 see page 18).

Promoting mental health and well-being (Section 4.2.1)

Stakeholders identified four types of existing approaches that seek to address the mental health and well-being of the farming sector within Wales. These included:

  1. Raising awareness about mental well-being and support targeted to the farming sector.
  2. Increasing mental health literacy amongst support agencies.
  3. Partnership working in order to integrate mental health and well-being across farm facing services, and
  4. Outreach programmes. However, many of these approaches rely on short term funding, and none have been evaluated to understand the uptake and impact on the health and well-being of farmers.

International examples addressing the mental health and well-being of farmers (Section 4.2.2)

Within the international literature, the lack of robust, evidence-based programmes specifically designed to support farmers and their families was a key challenge. Three programmes which had a strong rationale, sound theoretical approach, and were developed and implemented in partnership with farmers and organisations linked to agriculture were identified, but the evidence of impact on outcomes was weak:

  • Sustainable Farm Families/Sustainable Dairy Farm Families Programmes (Australia): a structured programme over three years embedding health and well-being narrative into farming through links to the farm business. The impact included identification of unmet health needs (including mental health), changes in the expressed approach to health, and small, but positive reductions in health indicators in those involved.
  • Farm-Link (Australia): a programme focused on developing mental health literacy across the farming sector, and strengthening co-ordinated, cross-agency networks to facilitate access to health support, and raise awareness of mental well-being. An increase in mental health literacy and linkages across key organisations was evident, but there was no evaluation of the impact on farmers’ mental well-being.
  • Mental health literacy (Australia, New Zealand): programmes including Mental Health First Aid, implemented to improve mental health literacy in the agricultural sector and farming communities. Programmes have been well received by those trained, and there is evidence of improved understanding and awareness amongst trainees. However, as yet, no empirical evidence exists which suggests it has a long-term beneficial impact on the recipients’ (farmers) mental health or well-being outcomes.

Common factors supporting good engagement across the agricultural sector were identified and should inform future action. These include using appropriate language, utilising peer/link workers or building on existing networks to engage with farmers, maintaining a focus on business, and ensuring co-production of programmes and tools with the farming sector.


Recommendations

This programme was undertaken within the context of the UK leaving the EU, but many of the uncertainties identified in the stakeholder engagement are longstanding issues, where Brexit may exacerbate the impact. Drawing on the stakeholder engagement and evidence review of the international literature, the recommendations to prevent, protect and promote mental health and well-being in farmers in Wales for consideration are:

A. Preventing uncertainty and challenge from adversity, and protecting against the impact on mental health and well-being

  • Recommendation: Co-produce the national vision for the future of the farming sector, highlighting its value as a natural resource supporting the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act (1).
  • Recommendation: Assess progress against the Working Smarter (2) recommendations to streamline the administrative and regulatory processes in farming.
  • Recommendation: Ensure effective approaches are implemented to support the digital inclusion of farmers and rural communities.
  • Recommendation: Review the uptake, coverage and effectiveness of business skills and workplace health programmes, and co-produce models (e.g. peer-to-peer) to engage the most vulnerable.
  • Recommendation: Facilitate partnership working and integration of governmental and non-governmental support agencies, using co-production methods of engagement with the farming community as standard. 

B. Promote mental health and well-being amongst farmers and farming communities

  • Recommendation: Support a farming sector led change in culture to address the stigma associated with seeking business or health advice, and support.
  • Recommendation: Co-produce, pilot and evaluate a peer-to-peer model to address the mental well-being of the most vulnerable.
  • Recommendation: Increase the mental health awareness amongst farmers and agencies who work with farmers, evaluating the outcomes on the farmers themselves.
  • Recommendation: Co-produce an integrated, evidence-based approach to mental health promotion and resilience building, including universal and targeted approaches, and determine the impact through robust evaluation. 

Read the full guide