Farming Community:  Mental Well-being

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:00 pm on 3rd February 2014.

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Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 3rd February 2014

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate.  The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech.  All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly recognises the detrimental impact the current financial situation, compounded by adverse weather conditions during the past year, is having on the mental well-being of those within the farming community; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to liaise with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to bring forward proposals to promote the mental health service provision available to farmers, agricultural and agrifood workers; and further calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to address the stigma of mental health issues and promote the development of therapies and practices best suited to supporting those working in the agricultural sector.

Go raibh maith agat, a Phríomh-LeasCheann Comhairle.  Farming is one of our most vulnerable and important industries.  The events of the past year are testament to that.  March 2013 saw one of the worst snowfalls in years and resulted in human suffering, mental and physical.  Homes in rural areas were left isolated, without power or heat, and, if it were not for the emergency services, we could have been looking at lives lost, because some people had to be airlifted out of their home.  I think that all of that proved to us, without any doubt, the vulnerability of living in a rural area.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Beggs] in the Chair)

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his microphone closer to him?  We are having difficulty hearing.

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin


On top of that is the stress that farmers suffered at the time, which we all know about.  On top of that again is the number of livestock that farmers lost.  The stress went on for days and weeks until they got the real figures for their losses.  We are told that, in some cases, farmers did not even tell their family about what they had lost because of the stigma of having to say that their stock was gone and that they could not bring in money.  Other things have added to the stress to the health of the farmer, including a drop in farm incomes, rising fuel and feed costs, general overhead costs rising, and the banking sector tightening its lending and overdraft facilities, which have added to the farming crisis.  The financial crisis that has resulted from the current economic climate has led to increased stress and pressures on farmers and their families in the sector.  We have all heard stories this — of farmers not telling their families, as I said earlier — and of children going to school and having to be taken out of school because the stress was showing on them at school.  Some of the stories that we have heard are horrendous.  That all led to stress.

Farmers, as we all know, have always been reluctant to seek medical help.  In small rural communities, there is a stigma attached to mental health and stress.  It is that stigma that needs to be tackled, and quickly.  That, Members, is the thrust of my argument today:  how do we get rid of the stigma of mental health? 

We have cases of farmers having to sell their machinery to raise capital to replace buildings because their insurance did not cover them for snow or storm.  That added to it again, because quite a lot of farmers took it that their insurance covered them for all of that, but they found out in the small print that they were not covered at all.

The other thing is the lack of information on benefits.  This is a big thing.  I will come back to the benefits issue. 

In October 2013, Minister O'Neill met the Níamh Louise Foundation to award it a £10,000 grant from the Department's rural challenge programme.  That grant will help to fund the post of a suicide prevention officer for the rural areas of mid-Ulster.  In November 2012, Minister O'Neill and Health Minister Poots launched the farm families health checks programme.  That joint initiative between DARD and the Public Health Agency consists of a mobile unit that visits local farm markets and rural community events.  It offers on-the-spot health checks, such as blood pressure, monitoring cholesterol and diabetic screening.  In addition, individual lifestyle advice can be given.  Onward referral advice to other services can also be given. 

The issue of the farmer's lifestyle, which often leads them to having mental and physical health problems, has been identified in research.  It is actioned in the rural White Paper action plan.  Through DARD's tackling poverty and social isolation framework, it has been able to partner with the Health Department, the Public Health Agency and health trusts to develop and implement the farm families health checks programme.  Since the programme's introduction, the large numbers using the service are proof of the industry wanting to find out about healthy lifestyles and maintaining good physical and mental health.  It is also proof that farmers will access healthcare advice at a place and time that is convenient to them.  One of the other problems is the lack of knowledge about where to go to get help.

It is known through evidence that farmers are under-users of healthcare resources due to their isolation, long working hours and the financial pressures of running a business.  In a lot of cases, they live considerable distances from healthcare services.  That problem will probably increase due to the Transforming Your Care programme, which will see services more and more being centralised. 

The Health Minister invested £13 million in adult mental health for the years 2012 to 2015.  That money is spread across the five trusts on a capitation basis, which gives the Northern Trust an extra £3·713 million.  The extra funding is for services both in rural and urban areas.  I believe that that in itself raises a problem.  That is because we have not really identified rural areas as having a specific problem; we have included the rural areas with the urban areas.  The motion is clearly focusing on the farming community in rural areas.  

We still do not have any reports from the trust about the farming community's medical status.  Where has the £3·7 million been spent, and what are the results to date?  Has a programme even been identified for the farming community?  I have asked that question several times, and I still have not got an answer.  We need that programme to be identified, and we need to know how the trusts are going to get out into the community to reach out to the farmers and their families.  They cannot wait for those people to come to them, because, in reality, the nature of their business means that they work unsociable hours.  They have to be there, and the worry of becoming sick and of not being able to attend to their work is adding to the pressure 

I recently read a report on cancer services.  It is a big thing when any person is identified as having cancer, but it is especially so for the person who is self-employed.  It leaves them in the awful position of having to access benefits, and they do not know where to go to get those benefits.  Those self-employed people who know where to go and who have ever tried to apply for benefits get very little help.  In saying that, I was glad to know that a cancer service has opened in the Causeway Hospital in Antrim especially for that. 

Figures show that approximately one farmer a week commits suicide.  In all the examples that we have on depression in the agriculture industry, we see that the word "stigma" keeps arising.  In the rural countryside, there is a perception that the farming life is an idyllic lifestyle, when you are outside and at one with nature.  However, that can sometimes be far from the truth.  The severe weather last year really showed the gaps in the services, which I mentioned.  One such gap is in accessing benefits.  I rang the benefits office and enquired whether staff had a service to deal with rural isolation that meant that, after last year's crisis, they got out into the rural areas to give information to the farming community.  The answer was no and that nothing has moved on since last year.  Given all the talk about what was going to be done after what happened last year, nothing has been done.  My Minister, the Minister of Agriculture, and the Minister of Health have put programmes into place, but it takes these other outside agencies, such as social services etc —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Oliver McMullan Oliver McMullan Sinn Féin

The main things that need to be looked at are the involvement of social services and the stigma that is attached to mental ill health.  I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

The motion is somewhat timely, considering the problems that the farming community in my constituency is facing over the delay in single farm payments for remote sensing.  The Department decided on that area, but it has heaped massive pressure not only on the farming businesses of that area but on the suppliers to the area.  Rather than taking a hit once, they are taking it 50 or 100-odd times.  They are having to bankroll and lend out, and they have large credit notices to their farm businesses and customer base, which is potentially putting hundreds of jobs and farm businesses at risk. 


In my constituency office, what I have experienced over the past years has been seen in the telling story of a person's demeanour when they walk into my office.  It does not have to be a farmer or a rural dweller; it can be a businessman from any walk of life who is seeing his business fail and his profits fall or is struggling to make ends meet.  The demeanour is the same across the board.  They come into my office, not really wanting to be there but having been dragged in by their wife or daughter.  The daughter and the wife do all the speaking, while the farmer — the man of the house — looks down at the floor or at his shoes and does not want to engage.  It is as if there is a sense of shame, when there should not be.  In all walks of life and in different periods of life, we all need help and assistance.  Farmers should know that they should seek help and receive it.  That is very important.

Farming is a very lonely business, and you might be on your own for long periods of the day.  It is not only that.  While you struggle to feed your business, it is not only your family that you have to worry about feeding but your livestock.  On many occasions, the farming community and the farmers who come into my office are more concerned about their livestock than their health.  That is very telling.  You know then that things have got so bad and farmers have left it so late to seek help that it might be too late. 

They come into my office about a range of issues.  Some come in because they cannot pay their electricity bill and NIE has been out to turn off their power.  Of course, once there is any resistance, NIE walks away and starts legal proceedings, which, in itself, can cause terrible strain.  Issues like the horse meat scandal also had an impact.  The snow crisis of last spring had a great impact on people in my constituency, in the neighbouring consistency of East Antrim and other constituencies where there is high ground.  There have also been long-term low gate prices, whereby the farmer — the producer — has to produce food at a low return while supermarkets make huge profits.  That has an impact, and it grates with those in farming. 

It is right that the Minister should look at this.  He should not treat farmers as a special case, because, of course, he has to deal with the whole Province and there are also cases of mental illness in urban areas.  However, it seems that the farming community, who live down long lanes, have the mentality that they do not want to speak to anybody about their problems.  They meet their neighbours —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 5:15 pm, 3rd February 2014

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Paul Frew Paul Frew DUP

— and talk about anything and everything but the state of their mental health.  Something has to be done so that the farming community can be made aware that there is somebody there to help.

Photo of Joe Byrne Joe Byrne Social Democratic and Labour Party

As a member of the Agriculture Committee and a representative of a rural constituency like West Tyrone, I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. 

In recent times, the mental health of farmers has been affected by a plethora of external factors.  Some have been to do with the weather, others with the erosion of rural services and others, unfortunately, with administrative failures by the Department of Agriculture.  As a Government administrative body, DARD does not cover itself in glory with how it relates to farmers on the ground.

The weather crisis experienced by farmers and the resultant loss of livestock has undoubtedly played a huge role in affecting farmers' morale over recent years.  Last year, I visited farmers in my constituency in the Sperrins who had lost sheep and cattle and were genuinely worried about how those losses would affect their financial outcomes.  Many relied on the sale of stock to maintain an income, and without that, they were stranded.  However, really, the farm business had been downsized through the sale of such stock to ease cash flow problems.

I see that the Minister of Health is in attendance and I welcome that; however, I think that the Minister of Agriculture should also be here to listen to some of these issues.

It was then the role of the Department to help alleviate this pressure by providing financial assistance.  Unfortunately, some farmers were left in limbo for long periods.  DARD was slow to get compensation payments out quickly to those affected, thus adding to the stress.  Not only did they not receive any monetary assistance from the Department, they continue to suffer extra farm costs such as increase costs for fodder, fuel and other related inputs.  That combination reduced many farmers to a state of financial loss from which they are still trying to recover.  Furthermore, the issue of single farm payment delays continues to frustrate, anger and bewilder many farmers.  As we heard earlier from the Chairman of the Committee, Paul Frew, some farmers have been waiting a long time for their entitlements.  Given that 87% of total farming income in the past year can be accounted for in relation to CAP support, it is obvious that any delay in such single farm payments is of crucial importance to farmers.  Those farmers who have not been paid are suffering severe financial difficulties and the banks are breathing down their necks, as Mr McMullan said earlier.

On top of that, the general confusion around mapping systems and methods of control are becoming another frustrating issue for farmers.  The attitude towards departmental officials has changed.  Those who were of great assistance 10 years ago are now viewed as enforcement officers, adding severe stress to farmers.  DARD officials are no longer regarded as farm advisory officers but as enforcement officers.  A prevalent issue in the mental health of farmers is the reluctance within the rural community to come forward.  Again, Mr McMullan made reference to that.  Farmers are a stoic people and they endure much without protest.  The duty is now on the Minister of Agriculture and the Minister of Health to break the stigma that exists in the rural community, and encourage those who are feeling vulnerable to come forward.

I commend the Minister's work on the Breaking the Silence project and I think the House agrees that initiatives of that sort are needed to reach out to those in the rural community.  Initiatives such as those carried out by the members of the Niamh Louise Foundation, who are doing terrific work in suicide prevention and awareness throughout rural communities, is to be commended.

I acknowledge that the current financial situation also contributes heavily to mental ill-health among our farmers.  Farmers are constantly telling me that the prices of materials are up but the price of their livestock has fallen.  That trend is alarming and causes increased stress.  If we are to address the above issues — namely the financial assistance of the Department of Agriculture and the need to promote mental-health awareness by the Department of Health — it is clear that we will need a joined-up approach from both Ministers and both Departments.

I support the motion, but I would like a realistic assessment to be made of the situation in which many farmers find themselves.  Let us hope that the Department of Agriculture will also listen and be less cumbersome in the way that it processes single farm payment applications and, indeed, the verification that thus ensues.

Photo of Jo-Anne Dobson Jo-Anne Dobson UUP

I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion.  Living and working in the countryside can seem idyllic to someone looking in from the outside, but the truth is often very different.  For many farmers and their families, feelings of isolation and loneliness can be commonplace.  The typical image of a rough and tough farmer often masks the true thoughts inside him.  To give an example, one farmer, explaining his feelings of isolation to the Samaritans, said:

"I often work alone for long hours without speaking to anyone.  This means I don't get the chance to share problems, which can feel really lonely.  It's amazing how important just having someone to talk to is."

Those are the views of one farmer, but I am sure that they are mirrored in farms across Northern Ireland.  For so many, living and working in the countryside can lead to a real feeling of isolation and emotional distress. 

Poor mental health follows and, sadly in too many cases, can lead to physical harm or suicide.

Stress, whether emotional or financial, can have devastating consequences.  The pressures on farmers, especially when they relate to cash flow, can seem to be unending.  Those were compounded by the adverse weather last March, which brought many to their lowest point.

Last Thursday night, in Craigavon civic centre, we heard powerful testimonies from people affected by mental ill health and suicide.  The awareness event was organised by the mayor of Craigavon and included stands from local charities that help people affected by this issue.  The powerful testaments of local people brought home the reality that so many people struggle with an invisible and scary illness, not least farmers.

The event was hugely successful, attracting even the Health Minister, who attended to view the stands.  I pay tribute to the outstanding work of those charities, including Lifeline; the Samaritans; Care in Crisis, Lurgan; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC); Action Mental Health; PIPS Upper Bann; and Yellow Ribbon.  They and others are the experts in this area and should be placed front and centre of any strategy to improve the mental health of our farmers.  All too often we look to the statutory agencies, but in this case let us not forget the experts.

The important message that should be sent out to those struggling in any way is that there is always someone there to talk to.  One of the speakers last week, Seanna Nugent, whose brother committed suicide, said that Kenneth did not want to die but that he just did not know how to go on living.  That is true in far too many cases.  I call on the Health Minister and on the Agriculture Minister to work together to bring forward strategies to improve the mental health of our farmers, and, indeed, their families, strategies that fully involve the charities that I mentioned.

My party's draft Programme for Government for this Assembly included:

"Introduce a mental health awareness programme for those working in rural areas, particularly within the agricultural sector, so that they become aware of the services available to tackle depression and other rural related stresses which are magnified by a feeling of isolation."

I would welcome an assurance from the Minister that this issue is being actively taken forward at Executive level.

The motion discusses opportunities in Transforming Your Care.  I urge caution because just as it creates opportunities to improve services, it also creates opportunities to get it wrong.  We do not want to see isolated rural villages and populations further deprived of services — quite the opposite.  Farmers and rural dwellers live further from services and therefore require awareness programmes such as those proposed by my party to actively promote mental health and well-being.

I will give the last word to one of the contributors last week, Elaine Fogarty, from Portadown, who told us in Craigavon, "My illness no longer defines me.  Hope does."

This motion, if acted upon, will bring hope to countless numbers of people suffering in silence.  We support the motion and call for action.

Photo of Judith Cochrane Judith Cochrane Alliance

I thank the Members for raising this important issue in the motion.  Around 36% of Northern Ireland's population inhabit rural settlements, many living and working in the various sectors of our diverse agriculture industry.  Although there are many physical hazards associated with farm work, there are also various mental health issues attributed to long days, unsociable hours and isolation experienced by those endeavouring to maintain a successful farming business and livelihood.

Failure to treat mental illness can, in the most tragic circumstances, lead to an increase in suicide rates.  The number of suicides in Northern Ireland has risen in the past decade.  Although more suicides typically occur in urban areas, farmers are considered by many to be among the high-risk groups.  In recent years, financial constraints, outbreaks of disease, poor weather conditions and the resulting uncertainties have placed a heavy burden on many in the agricultural industry.Worryingly, three systematic studies on mental health among the UK rural community following the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001 reported elevated levels of psychological morbidity among farmers and other rural workers, many of whom opted for self-help, advice from family and friends or did not recognise the illness at all.

The culture of self-sufficiency associated with rural communities, in addition to the social stigma and concerns over confidentiality in small communities, has no doubt resulted in a reluctance among some sufferers to seek help.  The issue is further compounded by difficulties in accessing the appropriate healthcare facilities, often due to poor transport and infrastructure.

In recent years, however, efforts have been made to address some of those issues, such as the availability of healthcare facilities in rural areas, the stigma associated with mental illness in those communities and increased worries over farm safety.  Various collaborative initiatives have been launched, such as the farm families health checks programme, which is aimed at boosting rural access to health screening services.  As others mentioned, funds have also been awarded to the Niamh Louise Foundation, enabling a suicide prevention officer to assist in the delivery of its Breaking the Silence campaign.

Although those measures are a positive step towards resolving some of the issues, the full impact of the initiatives is as yet unclear.  Work remains to be done if we are to ensure that people living in rural areas have access to psychological therapies, a service that is already under-resourced.

I join with other Members in calling for more to be done to promote the mental health services that are already in place for farmers and agricultural and agrifood workers and for the Health Minister and the Agriculture Minister to work together to develop therapies and practices that are best suited to supporting those working in the sector.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 5:30 pm, 3rd February 2014

As a farmer, I am only too aware of the pressures on farmers in the industry, particularly those connected to recent difficulties with weather patterns, farmgate prices and the struggle to make the books balance.  I have added politics into the mix, but I not sure which is the most stressful.

Farmers by their nature are hard grafters and possess the all-important never-give-up attitude.  That work ethic has sustained the industry and the Province through a number of crises over the years, such as BSE, foot-and-mouth disease, flooding and severe summer and winter weather.  As Members said, some farmers are waiting for months on end for their single farm payment.

On my farm, a couple of Christmases ago, it was almost impossible to get the cows milked because of the freezing conditions.  The strain and worry of trying to keep a farm operational undoubtedly causes individuals a lot of stress.  The recent television series 'Rare Breed' has shone a light on that work ethic and captured the ups and downs of farming and the different emotions that farmers go through:  hoping for changes in the weather, fighting the elements to get crops sown and harvested, and fighting the markets to get a fair return for their produce.

There is no doubt that mental health issues affect people in all sectors of society, and agriculture is no different.  However, the work ethic that is engrained in farmers' minds presents a block to them admitting that they have an issue with accepting mental health assistance.  The motion brings that issue to light.  Does the Minister have any data on referrals from the farming community?

There have been some very good initiatives aimed at the agricultural community from a health perspective, including cancer, blood pressure and general heart health.  Those have been very well received, with roadshows visiting livestock marts across the Province to publicise the need for farmers to look after themselves and to act quickly if there are signs of any health issue.

The need for a similar approach on the issue of mental health is important, and I support the need for schemes that are more tailored to the agricommunity to assist in creating a greater awareness of mental health and to make it easier for those in our agricommunity to come forward.  I support the motion.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  Beidh mé breá sásta labhairt i bhfabhar an rúin seo inniu.  I am very happy to speak in favour of the motion.

Weather conditions over the past number of years have had a long-term detrimental effect on farmers, their livestock and the wider rural community.  The harsh winters of 2010 and 2012 were particularly difficult, with heavy and prolonged snowfall and freezing temperatures.  For many, they were the worst in living memory.  However, the spring storm of 2013 was unparalleled in its intensity and ferocity, particularly in areas such as the Mournes, the glens of Antrim and the Sperrins.  Heavy snowfall accompanied by severe winds descended on these areas from Friday 22 March, and there was still snow on the hills some six weeks later.

The losses to many hill farmers were catastrophic and the sense of despair endemic.  For many in the farming community, this seemed to be the last straw.  Some talked of it as the end of a way of life.  Thankfully, despite what some maintain, the Minister, the emergency services, the Department and others delivered physical assistance on the ground and rapidly processed compensation.  Nonetheless, it was a very worrying time for all farmers and had an adverse effect on the mental health of many.

The suffering was far from over.  The continued feeding of livestock into May, June and even later meant that fodder stocks were soon depleted.  Farmers who had already encountered difficulties in receiving bridging loans from the banks could not access the necessary funds, even when the Minister had identified alternative sources of fodder from other parts of Ireland and elsewhere.  There were also reports of profiteering.  However, I have to say, as Paul Frew touched on, that there were many laudable examples of grain merchants and suppliers keeping many farmers on the go.  Anecdotal evidence indicates that, at this time, desperate farmers were culling some of their stock.  There were reports of animal welfare issues as well.

That was the dire situation.  Many Members, particularly those from rural constituencies, will undoubtedly recall the impassioned pleas of desperate farmers.  With those in mind, the Minister introduced funding that, in conjunction with the Niamh Louise Foundation, would help to put in place a suicide prevention officer for the mid-Ulster area.  The Minister also introduced the farm families health checks programme to provide help and advice to people in rural areas who were suffering from poor mental health and suicidal thoughts.  Minister O'Neill, speaking at its launch, said:

"Farmers lead very busy lives, often working alone which can have implications for both their mental and physical health."

She said that a lot of cases could be prevented with "timely and appropriate care".  In the first few months, over 1,000 people were seen at farmers' marts and community centres.  Likewise, the social farming initiative was aimed at creating linkages between the agriculture and health sectors.


The motion calls for a strengthening of the linkages between the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety:

"to address the stigma of mental health issues and promote the development of therapies and practices best suited to supporting those working in the agricultural sector."

As such, it is a commendable motion, and I recommend it to the House.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

The events of last winter brought into focus the need to promote the services required for our rural dwellers' mental and physical well-being.  That is especially the case for our farming community, which suffered greatly because of the adverse and stressful weather conditions.  I pay tribute to all our emergency services for their efforts during what was a challenging period for farming, rural and other dwellers, and even the livestock.

In many ways, farmers have a solitary lifestyle, mostly due to the nature of the job.  That should help us all to realise the greater need for easier access to these services for vulnerable communities that live in very remote rural areas.  Last year's weather and its impact on our farmers will have repercussions for years to come.  Therefore, it is important that we do what we can to help rural dwellers to cope with the after-effects of financial consequences that can lead to other medical and social hardships.

It is also important that we acknowledge the stigma surrounding mental health issues.  This is unjustified and unacceptable.  If someone is experiencing health problems, regardless of what those are, they should know that help is available.  That support could be best provided by something like the rural support programme in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, but it should happen on a cross-departmental basis.  The helpline is available from 8.00 am until 11.00 pm, seven days a week.This, therefore, is a great asset, and perhaps adaptions could be considered within rural support to provide more expanded services.

Harsh though it may sound, all Ministers are aware that budgets are constrained and that the use of existing infrastructures may be the best way to address these issues.  Given the value of our agrifood industry, it is most important that we aid those involved in it and, indeed, all rural dwellers and businesses to ensure that we have a healthy and happy community.  I pay tribute to Minister Poots for replying to this very worthwhile motion.

Photo of Mickey Brady Mickey Brady Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  I support the motion.  Farming is an all-weather, all-season, year-round job, which involves a lot of hard work, effort and long hours.  There is a long-held perception in urban communities that, because farmers have land and livestock, they must by definition be well off.  In the majority of cases, of course, that is simply not true.

Farmers are primarily affected by three main issues that can mean the difference between any degree of success or failure.  These are bad weather, obviously, poor crops and the continuing increases in fuel prices.  Unfortunately, profits do not keep up with the rising costs of production.  All those issues are outside the control of farmers, and that makes them so much more difficult to deal with.

A number of different socio-economic factors contribute to health inequalities, and there is a strong link between deprivation and poor health.  Poverty is an important risk factor for illness and premature death, and rural deprivation is often hidden.  Currently, fuel poverty affects a greater number of rural families than urban families.  In addition, those who live in rural areas are often not aware of any financial assistance that is available.

Rural dwellers are more likely to suffer higher levels of loneliness and social isolation than people in urban areas.  People in rural areas are reluctant to seek outside help for mental health issues.  Social factors, such as fears about confidentiality, can also prevent individuals from making use of services.  The associated stigma of mental health problems and the reluctance to confront them is very common.  When I worked in an advice centre in Newry, dealing with a large rural hinterland, I very much found that to be the case.  Farmers and their families would not even discuss these issues with close relatives, never mind with GPs or psychiatrists.  Unfortunately, because of that, there is increasing incidence of depression, stress and suicide in rural areas.  Stresses are increased by isolation, single-worker situations and a lack of knowledge about services and difficulties in accessing them.  Also, with the financial pressures resulting from the current economic situation, all these problems are increased and magnified.

The range and availability of services is much more limited in rural areas in comparison with urban areas.  There is a joint initiative by Departments, including DARD, DHSSPS and DCAL to deal with these problems.  They have joined the Public Health Agency and the main sporting bodies to provide help and advice to those in rural areas who suffer from poor mental health and suicidal thoughts.  Speaking at the launch of the initiative, Minister O'Neill said that:

"Tackling poor mental health and suicide in rural areas is important."

She continued:

"The involvement of sports and the arts is critical — they provide a solid community-based structure that will ensure many people are targeted and get the ... support they need."

There are many groups working in rural areas that provide a great service.  As a member of the Health Committee I met representatives of the Níamh-Louise Foundation, which provides a valuable service to vulnerable people who live in rural areas and makes that service accessible. 

The rural population across the North is affected by a range of health issues, including isolation, infrastructure accessibility, demographic changes and socio-economic challenges.  It is very important that innovative approaches to rural healthcare are put in place.  A more complete understanding of the health needs and particular problems that are faced by rural communities is necessary, and policies must be put in place that ensure that the health and well-being of rural communities is prioritised.

Photo of Seán Rogers Seán Rogers Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion and call on the Northern Ireland Executive to work closely together to provide much-needed help for those in rural areas who experience mental health issues.  I welcome this debate and the opportunity to highlight the issues of rural social isolation and suicide prevention.

Farming is a native industry, and we must do all that we can to protect and sustain it.  Many of our farmers are sole traders who work long days on their own, very often in inclement weather, and the nature of the work can have a detrimental effect on their physical health.  In addition to that, there is the mental burden of being under stress because of economic pressures and the level of bureaucracy that is associated with inspections, single farm payments, country management schemes, remote sensing or whatever.  As someone mentioned, the advisory officer of the past has turned into an enforcement officer.  For example, many farmers have not recovered physically, mentally, emotionally or financially from the snow last Easter.  Some sheds are still in ruins, and some farmers still remain unpaid for their losses.

I welcome the fact that the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety is here, but, as other Members said, there has to be a cross-sectoral approach to this.  Rural community transport, for example, affects the well-being of our farmers.  Funding is difficult to obtain, and the need for the community and voluntary sector is increasing.  The Minister of Environment, from our party, and his Department are reviewing bus licensing.  Will that have an impact on how the buses operate, because fewer people will be able to drive them?  Will drivers have to sit another test, which will perhaps cost more money?  The point that I am really illustrating is that we need some joined-up thinking on all issues, and from DRD and DOE in this particular example.  If we do not think this through, we will have fewer farmers and rural dwellers who are able to able to avail themselves of a service such as community transport to take them to the hospital etc.  Despite the best efforts of our health service and others, we will have more social exclusion rather than social inclusion.  That will cause medical problems, leading to more hospital admissions and more pressure on our hospital services.

It is vital that the Government listen to the real needs of the community at ground level.  Leadership from DARD and other Departments must show the farming community that their concerns have been fully listened to and acted on in a joined-up manner.  The working partnership formed by DARD, DCAL, DHSSPS and the main sporting bodies to provide help and advice to people in rural areas who suffer from poor mental health and suicidal thoughts is to be welcomed, but it needs to be expanded.  I acknowledge the great social initiatives that are taking place at many football clubs, including my own, and the likes of the Men's Sheds initiative.  Tackling poor mental health and suicide in rural areas is important.  Partnerships that raise awareness of the available support provide a solid, community-based structure that will ensure that many people are targeted and get the support that they need.  The conclusions and recommendations of the Niamh Louise Foundation report detail the need for dialogue and development across all sectors that have a role and investment in the promotion of mental health and well-being.  We must take that as a true reality for our rural communities across the North.  The very best possible provision must be made available to address the needs and issues facing rural communities generally and, more specifically, groups that have been identified as being at risk.

As other Members have done, I recognise the good work done through the Breaking the Silence scheme and the farm families health checks programme.  The Social Farming Across Borders scheme, which linked healthcare and farming North and South, is another good example.  The good practice established needs to be disseminated across the farming community.  In fact, such projects should receive targeted funding through, say, the social investment fund.  I call not on DHSSPS and DARD alone but on the whole Executive to work seriously for the health and well-being of our farmers, who are our primary food producers.  I asked junior Minister McCann last week how rural dwellers are being accommodated through the social investment fund, and I think that that is a key issue.  You cannot measure the level of social deprivation in our farming community mainly through the Noble indices.

Finally, I know that farming is a male-dominated industry, and I urge spouses and other family members to urge farmers to seek timely and appropriate healthcare from professionals.  Avail yourself of the cancer bus when it visits your local area.  Make use of your local GP.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 5:45 pm, 3rd February 2014

Like other Members, I welcome the fact that the Health Minister is to respond to the debate.  I know that he is no stranger to the effects of stress and that he knows how important farmers' mental well-being is.

I know that I am not delivering the winding-up speech, but I will sum up on something that has been said around the Chamber today.  There is a call for the Department of Health to work with DARD to roll out a programme of community-based health checks and information targeting farm families across all trust areas; to seek to improve services in local areas, putting the onus on commissioners in the planning and delivery of Health and Social Care services; to promote rural health improvement strategies, including consultation; and to work with the Department of Agriculture to explore the impact of rurality isolation and deprivation and how that affects health inequalities.

Those are not just things that Members in the Chamber have said today; those are six of the bullet points that are included in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development's rural White Paper action plan — I can never remember the title of it.  Those are the targets that have been agreed with the Department of Health.  So, what we are debating in the Chamber today is nothing new.  It is something that has been agreed between the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Minister of Health, but I will take the opportunity here to reinforce it.  I am glad that the parties of both Ministers that we have called on, who are mentioned in this motion, are in agreement and have already committed that in the rural White Paper action plan.

You hear so often in any debate that we have here that it is about the call for joined-up services and joined-up approaches in how we do things.  We have heard a number of very valuable, worthwhile and worthy organisations mentioned here that are already delivering those services in the rural economy.  We have a number of good organisations out there, including Rural Support, which has been mentioned.  It does fantastic work in this area, and always has done.  It has been supported by the Department of Health and the Department of Agriculture, but we need to be careful because sometimes in Northern Ireland, and in the rural economy especially, we seem to create organisations to solve problems that are already there.  We need to be very careful that any resources that come out of the debate today, or any additional support, is funnelled into those existing organisations that have the support.  George Robinson mentioned Rural Support specifically, and being able to give it additional resources to open up what it does.

The pressures on the agriculture community and the farming community are well mentioned in the motion.  We are looking at the current financial situation, and I do not think that it is necessary to rehearse again the pressures that have been put on by inspections and delays in payments, because our agriculture industry faces those issues annually.  Until the Department of Agriculture gets it right, the Minister of Health, unfortunately, has to be there to put services in to support those farmers and their families who are suffering that additional stress and crisis. 

Long days have been mentioned.  It always comes round; I think it was in a debate that the Ulster Unionist Party put forward on farm incomes that that was mentioned.  I have found from talking to farmers that the long days that they spend in the yard and in the fields are getting longer, because they find it easier to put themselves into a forced isolation rather than walk into the house and confront their wife or try to deal with their son or daughter and try to face up to the problems that are encroaching on them every day, so it is easier to stay in that yard.  As any Member here knows, when you start to spend a lot of time alone and you start to get caught up in your own thoughts, the minor problems suddenly become major ones, unless you have somebody to relieve that pressure and somebody to talk to.  Those are the sorts of services that already exist in the rural community, and we should look to those services and support them. 

We talk about the stresses on the farming community and their mental well-being.  There is the physical health stress and the mental health stress, and the compounding factors out there are only making the situation worse.  If we follow the recommendations in the rural White Paper action plan, which has been developed and agreed, there is a lot in there that, if addressed and brought forward, can go a long way to tackling the mental well-being issues that we have discussed today.

The other challenges go back to the Minister of Agriculture to tackle —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

— and bring a solution to the issues that are causing the problems.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

At the outset, I will say that it is somewhat unfortunate that the Minister of Agriculture has not seen fit to come along and listen to the debate.  I accept that the Minister of Health is responding, as he seems to have responded to every motion in this Building for the past three weeks, but for an issue as important as this, it would have been no bad thing if the Minister had dropped in for 10 minutes to at least express her support for the farming community and empathise with the difficulties that they are going through at the moment. 

I speak as a son of a farmer.  I am the eldest son, but I decided to go into something much less reputable — politics — and my brother took over the farm.  That gives me some experience, though the Minister of Health is uniquely experienced to deal with the issue, having been a farmer himself and now the Health Minister.  I agree with much of what was said.  I thought that Mr Swann's commentary in the previous speech was extremely telling and gave a very interesting insight to the problems facing farmers.  Farming has become a desperately lonely business. 

When the Northern Ireland state was formed in the 1920s, over 100,000 people were employed in farming in Northern Ireland.  Indeed, if you go into the Senate Chamber, you will see three motifs above the Public Gallery representing shipbuilding, linen and farming.  Linen and farming employed over 100,000 people, and shipbuilding employed 35,000.  Now, 75% of those people have gone, and, due to mechanisation — of course, it is great to have labour-saving devices — many farmers, including my father and brother, spend a huge amount of their time out in the fields or in the yard totally on their own.

Another issue that has not been raised before but that is affecting a lot of farmers and causing huge emotional distress is that many sons and daughters who have got educated and have watched the life that their father has had — it tends to be the father rather than the mother — have decided that farming is not for them and that they are going to be accountants, journalists or bank managers.  They have decided not to take on the family farm.  Indeed, that is exactly what my own family is facing.  My brother has four children, and they have no intention of following in their father's footsteps.  They have seen enough.  That causes huge distress, because that farm has been with the Wells family for centuries — since plantation times — and we are very proud of it.  However, it looks as though now, after many centuries of the Wells family farming that land, it will be gone.  That causes huge distress to the farmers concerned.

One of my relatives recently said, "Farming is a wonderful way of turning grass into debt", and it is.  In addition to all those other worries, there is a vast amount of debt on our farming community's shoulders.  I accept that a lot of that debt is, of course, good, as it is the security of farmland.  The one thing that has happened, which has been very noticeable during the recession, is that the value of farmland has actually held up very well.  However, it can still be no fun at all working those long hours alone, knowing that all that you are doing is raising money to pay off debt and debt interest.  That issue unfortunately still bedevils our farming community.

There is also a huge reluctance from people in the farming community to go to see their doctor.  For various reasons, I have been in and out of a lot of doctors' surgeries in recent months, and I know that the one person who you never seem to see there is the local farmer.  He is too busy.  He has too many responsibilities and too many worries, yet, often, he — 99% of them are men — is the one person who should be there.  I therefore applaud the initiatives that various voluntary and community groups have undertaken to bring the message to the farming community. 

Indeed, in my local mart in Rathfriland, they bring the caravan along, and the nurses go into the mart where the men are all standing talking about sheep, hoggets or cattle, and they physically drag them into the caravan for tests.  The shocking thing is that some of those tests are showing that the health condition of many of those men leaves a lot to be desired.  For instance, tests for their cholesterol prove that some of them have very worrying levels.  Indeed, in one case that I heard of recently, they had to actually advise the farmer to go straight to hospital because he had a blocked artery.  We need to ensure that we step up that programme, because that will detect farmers in the place where you are guaranteed to get them, as the one place that a farmer loves to get out to is the mart to talk to his friends.  He also needs to have that check-up.

Finally, many Members mentioned the work of the Níamh Louise Foundation.  I have been to Dungannon twice to see its work, and I have talked at length with that charity.  Indeed, I was here for the —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

It is great to see a mental health charity targeting the rural community, which for so long has been the Cinderella of this field.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP 6:00 pm, 3rd February 2014

I thank everyone who has spoken today on this important issue, particularly the Members who are responsible for bringing the motion to the Assembly. 

International research shows that, in developing countries, rural dwellers tend to have poorer health and well-being than those in urban areas.  However, in developed countries, the opposite is the case.  As someone who comes from a farming background, I am well aware that rural life can have its rewards.  However, we must not overlook the many challenges that rural dwellers face.

I often listen to my father, who had 10 in his family.  They all worked on the farm, along with a couple of labourers.  Now, that farm would not sustain one person.  Fundamental changes have taken place, to the camaraderie, to working with neighbours and all that.  The integration that used to be the case does not take place on farms any more. 

Deprivation is often associated in the public consciousness with urban areas, but there is significant deprivation in rural areas.  Some of the most deprived areas of Northern Ireland are in predominantly rural places.  Most people will know that farmers are generally asset rich but very often cash poor.  It is all well and good to have a farm of land, but that does not buy groceries at the end of the week and may not pay the meal bill at the end of the month. 

Members have mentioned the difficulties faced by a number of farmers as a result of the single farm payment.  I understand the real difficulties that poses for individuals.  A lot of companies will rightly be expecting to get paid for products and services that they have supplied.  Many farmers will have expected to be able to pay that, in good faith, on the basis of their single farm payment being received.  Not aware that inspections had even taken place, they could not make any preparation with their bank.  I understand that people would be put under additional stress as a consequence of not having received their single farm payment. 

Those in rural areas have poor access to goods and services.  Financial difficulties and low incomes, very often poor housing conditions in old, damp houses or not well heated houses, and social isolation are all problems for the rural dweller.  For farmers in particular, the loss of control associated with weather and disease can be a particularly stressful issue.  Those factors can all take their toll on a person’s health and well-being. 

I remember being up Slieve Croob at Hare's Gap.  I looked over the countryside across the Mournes and Castlewellan forest; it was stunningly beautiful.  Yet hundreds, indeed thousands, of animals were caught up in the snow, with farmers doing their best to get them out of it or to get them food.  They faced huge problems.  Even now, having had a sustained period of rain, farmers who have been storing slurry would expect to be spreading it now, but some of them have the stress of full tanks with no prospect of the slurry going onto the fields for some time to come.  Animals are potentially going into poor living conditions as a consequence of that.  All those things can take their toll.  That is why rural support networks and organisations can help farmers in times of difficulty.  At government level, we can help those organisations to deliver effective services by ensuring that we develop holistic programmes that properly address the broader health needs of rural populations.  We can do that only by having strong working relationships across Departments.  Of particular importance is that the Health Department and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development work together to improve the health and well-being of rural populations. 

Projects such as MARA and Farm Families Health Checks are good examples of shared initiatives between the Departments and the Public Health Agency that attempt to improve the broader health and social well-being of rural communities.  Through the MARA project, people are visited in their own home and offered help to access services and benefits.  Over 7,000 household visits have been carried out, generating around 14,000 onward referrals for services, grants and benefits.  Those impressive figures clearly demonstrate the need for that type of service.  The Farm Families Health Checks programme is another important joint initiative.  The checks were introduced last year by the PHA and DARD.  Since then, basic health checks have been carried out on over 3,000 people at farmers’ marts and rural community events across Northern Ireland, including many in the Northern Trust area, and I would have expected Mr McMullan to be aware of them.  That level of throughput shows that the farming community is interested in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and has an appetite for information on how to be healthy.  Clearly, where farmers can access healthcare advice in a place and at a time that is convenient to do so, they will do so. 

As we move through the winter months, we look back to last March when so many areas were badly affected by extreme weather conditions.  During that time, and in its aftermath, the farm family health checks and MARA visits were increased in the areas most affected.  Practical support was necessary, of course, but the issue of mental health and well-being arose time and again.

This brings me to the difficult issue of suicide.  Northern Ireland continues to be plagued by high suicide rates, and no part of society is immune from it.  Indeed, farmers experience one of the highest rates of suicide in any industry.  The continued high level of suicides in Northern Ireland will be addressed by further implementation of the Protect Life strategy and the development of the next suicide prevention strategy.  The 'National Confidential Inquiry report into Suicides and Homicide by People with Mental Illness' published in July 2013 highlights the disturbing role of substance misuse, primarily alcohol, in suicides in Northern Ireland and the higher rate here than in Great Britain.  Many people here who face emotional difficulties use alcohol to rid themselves of the waves of negativity that they experience, but any relief gained in this way is merely temporary at best and generally leaves the individual more troubled and alone.  Consequently, efforts to tackle harmful drinking are being strengthened.

We know the risk factors for poor mental health and well-being.  I have already mentioned some of them.  There are two related issues that can compound these risks in rural areas.  The first is stigma and the second is the stoic nature of rural dwellers.  The stigma associated with mental illness is abhorrent.  It is also far too prevalent.  Indeed, it is widely accepted that feelings of stigma associated with the use of mental health services remain stronger in rural communities, and concerns over anonymity may have something to do with that.

Stigma is associated with shame.  It is deeply hurtful and isolating.  It damages people’s lives by presenting an obstacle to help-seeking and recovery.  We need to drive home the message that it is OK to tell others that you’ are not OK.  The bottom line is that seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength.  Indeed, the first step towards help should be celebrated as a success story rather than dreaded as a sign of failure.  This is what the Public Health Agency mental health awareness campaigns focus on.  The most recent campaign features a boxer and urges people talk about mental health problems that they may be experiencing.  The advert deliberately depicts a physically strong character, to show that mental ill-health can affect anyone.

Stigma can also be reduced by increasing access to appropriate talking therapies in primary care, which is particularly important for rural communities.  I mentioned the stoic nature of rural dwellers, and the cultural attitude that promotes independence and self-reliance is something we admire.  However, it can discourage people from seeking help and it is something that we need to be aware of when developing services for rural communities.

Some time ago, I helped launch an evaluation report on the community network approach to promoting mental health and preventing suicide in the northern area.  The report highlighted how this approach, which is rooted in partnership working and maximising community involvement, brings mental health promotion and suicide prevention into the heart of rural communities.  I firmly support the community-partnership approach.  Communities are best placed to know their local resources, issues and challenges.  That intimate knowledge is vital in tailoring services and initiatives to address local needs and in finding solutions to these challenges.

I have also been promoting the partnership approach at government level, where I have been meeting regularly with my ministerial colleagues to ensure that public health is a priority for all Departments.  This will be reflected in the new public health strategic framework, which will highlight the importance of connecting with others to promote health.  It is also vitally important that mental health services are provided in a range of settings.  In keeping with the Bamford vision, the Department’s priority for the development of mental health services continues to be focused on the improvement of community-based services across the region.

In line with the recommendations of the Bamford review, the provision of psychological therapies is being supported with investment of £6·5 million, including the development of primary talking therapy hubs at various locations.  Transforming Your Care also supports that approach and will facilitate the development of locally based services in rural areas.  Transforming Your Care sets out a commitment to ensure that people are able to receive the right care at the right time from the right people.  A key part of that is through the development of local primary and community care infrastructure.  The Health and Social Care Board is finalising work on the proposed regional hubs and spokes model, and a number of hub projects is already under way.  The service model for hubs and spokes encompasses a range of services tailored to local needs, with local commissioning groups determining what services should be provided for their community.  Services that may be provided include community mental health teams.  The new model of primary and community care infrastructure will enable the delivery of more services locally, including in rural areas.

Although the overall outlook for the farming industry is positive, we need to be able to support our farmers and rural dwellers in times of hardship and difficulty.  It is important that we continue to work together to build on an existing package of measures and on the momentum already in place.  That can be done effectively only if the PHA, DARD, the health trusts and rural community groups — the Niamh Louise Foundation was mentioned a number of times, along with other groups — continue to work in partnership.  That approach will, therefore, continue to be a priority for my Department.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.  At the outset of the debate, Oliver McMullan touched on the vulnerable and isolating nature of farmers working in rural areas.  He referred to the inclement weather, the livestock loss and the emotional impact that that had on farmers, along with the increase in production costs.  He referred to the fact that there was a great deal of stigma attached to mental health issues and that farmers have a tendency to conceal their stress, even from the closest members of their family.  He talked about how DARD and the Public Health Agency help farmers, and he referred to health checks and lifestyle advice.  He said that there was still a lack of information and an underuse of benefits and access to services.  He also said that the centralisation of health services as envisaged under TYC would exacerbate that.  He said that there was a need for programmes for farming communities and that it was important for health trusts to go out into communities.  He said that one farmer a week commits suicide and that the idyllic lifestyle that is portrayed in rural areas is not always accurate.  He concluded by saying that a multiagency approach was very important to address that.

Paul Frew spoke after Oliver and said that it was a very timely debate.  He drew on the fact that there has been a delay in processing single farm payments and that that was adding to the pressure on farmers and their suppliers.  He talked on a very personal level and said that when a farmer comes to see him in his office he can tell by his or her demeanour that they are reluctant to seek help and that there is almost a sense of shame.  He said that it was a very lonely business and that farmers were alone all day.  In some instances, they even put the needs of their livestock ahead of their own personal and health needs.  He referred to the impact of the horse-meat scandal, the weather conditions last year and low farmgate prices.  He said that it was very important for farmers to know that help is out there.

Joe Byrne, who spoke after Paul Frew, said that there was a range of pressures on farmers.  Again, he referred to the weather and to farmgate prices.  He cited DARD as another factor that had caused low morale in the farming community.  He said that DARD must do more to alleviate the financial crises that farmers are experiencing; for example, getting payments processed more quickly and more efficiently.  He said that single farm payments are crucial for farmers and that the banks are breathing down their neck.  He said that, unfortunately, DARD officials are sometimes seen as enforcement officers rather than advisers and that it was very important to break that stigma.  He commended the work of the Breaking the Silence initiative and the role of the Niamh Louise Foundation and concluded by saying that there was a need for a joined-up approach between the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Jo-Anne Dobson again picked up on the theme of isolation and loneliness.  She referred to the work of the Samaritans and said that a lot of farmers work alone and cannot share their problems, which causes stress, sometimes physical harm and even suicide.  She shared with us what happened at the recent event in Craigavon at which people shared their testimonies.  She said that charities should be the centrepiece of any solution.  She called on the Health Minister and the Agriculture and Rural Development Minister to develop joint strategies and to put the charities centre stage.  She said that it is important to develop a mental health awareness programme for people in rural areas.  She also said that the motion will bring hope to people living in silence.

Judith Cochrane referred to the fact that 36% of the population in the North live in rural areas.  She said that suicide rates were on the increase and that farmers were in the highest risk group.  That is exacerbated by the many uncertainties that they experience in their business.  She mentioned that, unfortunately, there is a great deal of stigma.  She also said that there is a high level of self-reliance in the farming community, which makes farmers less likely to access services.  She acknowledged that some initiatives were put in place to promote existing services.  Again, she called on the two Departments to work together to develop new strategies.

William Irwin referred to the work ethic of farmers.  Again, he referred to many of the following things that make their lives very difficult:  severe weather; foot-and-mouth disease in the past; the single farm payment; the culture of self-help; and a reluctance to access services.  He commended some of the initiatives taking place such as the health checks, roadshows etc.  However, he said that more awareness of mental health issues is required.

Cathal Ó hOisín again touched on the theme of the weather in 2010, 2012 and 2013.  He said that it had caused catastrophic losses to farmers but pointed out that the Minister moved rapidly to deliver assistance and compensation to them.  Cathal also talked about the role of the banks.  He mentioned DARD, the Niamh Louise Foundation, which established the post of a suicide prevention officer in the mid-Ulster area, and social farming initiatives.  He said that it is very important to develop therapies that are tailored to the agriculture sector.

George Robinson again drew on the weather theme and mentioned the vulnerability of farmers.  He paid tribute to the role of the emergency services during last year's snow crisis.  He said that the stigma that still surrounds poor mental health in communities is unacceptable.  He said that we need cross-departmental programmes to develop and expand the services.  He also said that it is very important to support rural areas.  He referred to the importance of argifood in the economy.

Mickey Brady acknowledged that farming is hard work all year round.  He drew on a rural/urban comparison and said that, in urban areas, there was a perception that people in rural areas are all well off and have big farms but that that is not the case at all.  He cited these three compounding factors:  the weather; crops; and fuel prices.  He said that there was a well-established link between deprivation and poor health and that there are high risk levels for isolation among people in rural areas.  Drawing on his past experience working in an advice centre setting, Mickey said that rural people, particularly those in the farming community, are less likely than many others to access such services.  He also referred to the excellent work of the Niamh Louise Foundation.

Sean Rogers welcomed the debate.  He talked about the long days and hard work involved and the economic and bureaucratic pressures on farmers.  He reiterated Joe Byrne's reference to the role of DARD and to it sometimes being seen as an enforcement officer.  Again, he called for a cross-sectoral approach as needed and joined-up thinking among the Departments, and he cited community transport as a good example.  He said that it is very important that Departments listen at ground level.  He said that there are some great initiatives centred on clubs.  He mentioned the Men's Sheds initiative as well.  He commended Breaking the Silence and other schemes for their good work and said that funding must be spread across the sector.  He also said that farming is male-dominated and that it is very important to urge spouses to encourage farmers to access vital services.

Robin Swann touched on rural isolation and the link to health inequalities.  He referred to the rural White Paper and said that the action points in it must be reinforced and implemented.  He mentioned the role of important services such as Rural Support and cited their excellent work.  He said that it was important to funnel support into existing organisations.  Mr Swann also said that, for farmers, already long days were getting longer.  They are forcing themselves into isolation rather than coming into the house to face their problems — it is easier to stay out in the yard or in the fields — but that causes physical and emotional stress. 

Jim Wells regretted that the Agriculture Minister was not here today.  He said that farming was a desperately lonely business and that, historically, when the state was created, linen, farming and shipbuilding were the three most popular industries or businesses of the day.  He regretted that many farmers' children were not taking on farming as a career, which adds to farmers' stress.  He said that debt accrues on the shoulders of farmers and that it is very difficult for them to make ends meet.  He mentioned that farmers are reluctant to go to the doctor or seek help.  He applauded the work of voluntary groups in bringing health checks to farmers' marts, and he commended the Niamh Louise Foundation for targeting rural areas.  He said that tackling mental health in the industry had been a Cinderella for too long.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 6:15 pm, 3rd February 2014

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

The Minister said that there had been many changes for farmers.  He referred to there being a lot of deprivation in rural areas and said that farmers were asset rich and cash poor.  He talked about their lack of willingness to access help and advice and said that the rate of suicide was quite high.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member's time is up.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly recognises the detrimental impact the current financial situation, compounded by adverse weather conditions during the past year, is having on the mental well-being of those within the farming community; and calls on the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development to liaise with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to bring forward proposals to promote the mental health service provision available to farmers, agricultural and agrifood workers; and further calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to address the stigma of mental health issues and promote the development of therapies and practices best suited to supporting those working in the agricultural sector.

Adjourned at 6.22 pm.