The Department's tackling rural poverty and social isolation (TRPSI) programme funds the Rural Support charity, the farm families health checks programme and the SPRING social prescribing project, which supports mental well-being in farming communities.
The Rural Support charity operates a telephone helpline and a signposting service for farmers and their families. Its experienced volunteers and mentors also meet and provide continuous support to clients on a range of issues pertaining to farming matters and mental stress. Its ongoing outreach programme is targeted at farmers and farm families in order to help strengthen farm businesses and build personal resilience. The farm families health checks programme also provides support to farmers and has to date screened the physical and mental health and well-being of over 20,000 individuals, primarily farmers, farmworkers and farm family members who have attended marts and community events.
Rural Support and farm families health checks programme staff recently collaborated to create an initiative called Protecting the Asset that is You, which provides key health messages to farmers, farm families and rural communities by using social media platforms.
The SPRING social prescribing project, which is delivered in partnership with eight rural healthy living centres, links medical care to non-clinical locally delivered support services by enabling medical professionals to refer rural patients to social prescribers and, ultimately, to a range of activities and services. Although the Department of Health has lead responsibility for mental health services, we all have a role to play across government. As well as those specific schemes that farmers can access, we are supporting a range of activities to make outdoor recreation more accessible and to encourage greater community participation and engagement. As we emerge from the challenges of COVID-19, getting people outdoors and active will greatly enhance their mental well-being.
DAERA is developing a new rural policy framework in order to shape future rural priorities. It includes draft goals to reduce loneliness and social exclusion in rural areas, minimise the impacts of rural isolation and promote the health and well-being of rural dwellers. The outworkings of that will promote positive health and well-being for farmers and, indeed, the wider rural community.
Our engagement is quite extensive across the board. Rural Support, in particular, provides a lot of support for female members of the rural population. I have to say that, on most farms, women are very often the backbone of the show. Very often, the man is seen out on the front line, but the women tend to do an awful lot of the paperwork, provide an awful lot of the supporting work and keep the show on the road. They face immense pressures as well.
Farming is a difficult business at times. There can be serious problems with cash flow. Weather conditions can cause problems. The subject of TB, which we have just concluded on, is one that causes huge mental stress as people lose substantial parts of their herds. The mental health impact of that is massive. The impact on the gentleman who happens to be leading the farm is perhaps more evident, but it is also there for the lady who may be a bit in the background. We need to ensure that the support is available to every person who needs it in the rural communities. The women in our rural communities are vital to their well-being.
In your role as Agriculture Minister, you are asked every week about mental health, which is good. What are the clinical and non-clinical findings from the roll-out of the well-being and mental health programmes?
We have identified that mental health in rural areas is a considerable problem. We have identified issues such as isolation, loneliness, anxiety and financial hardship, and we are focusing on community development approaches as we seek to roll out preventative activities to address matters identified at a local level. In the December 2020 to March 2021 period, over 75,000 rural dwellers benefited from that initiative. We have other TRPSI-funded initiatives such as the enhancement of forest parks, the development of community trails, the utilisation of school facilities for community use, the regeneration of disused historic buildings in rural communities, the access and inclusion grant-aid scheme to enhance disabled access and usage of public buildings and the continued funding for rural support networks and small-grant schemes to assist the rural community and voluntary sector. Therefore, we take these things seriously.
On the topic of mental well-being, many anglers and locals in the Dromore and Fintona area of west Tyrone have been left completely devastated by the major pollution incident at the weekend that resulted in thousands of fish being killed along a 5 km stretch of the Aughlish river. Can the Minister outline what actions his Department is taking to deal with the serious incident?
It is a pretty shocking pollution of that waterway, and I am absolutely appalled that it has happened. My officials are in the area seeking to assist and to mitigate, but, essentially, huge damage has been done, and it will not be rectified for years as a consequence of, almost certainly, someone not doing their job correctly. We will go through the process of identifying the person, taking them to court and ensuring that all costs are attributed to the individual who caused the pollution. However, all of that will not undo the damage that has been done. It deals with the individual responsible, but it will not undo the damage. I encourage everybody who is involved in business, agriculture or anything where there is the potential for materials to get into our waterways to take every action possible to ensure that that is not the case.
The Minister will be aware of another devastating event that took place some 22 years ago in my constituency, with the destruction of the then Lovell and Christmas bacon plant. That was my former employer. It had a huge impact on the mental well-being of the business community and, particularly, the farming community and on the pig industry in my constituency. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the fact that Bann Side Foods submitted a proposal of application notice (PAN) to the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council on Friday, with the potential for 400 jobs and a £75 million investment? Surely, that will be good for the mental health and economic prosperity of the farming community in my constituency.
That is, indeed, a very exciting proposal, and it has been tremendous to see the agri-food sector growing over the past decade and generation. I remember dealing with farmers on the back of the Lovell and Christmas factory fire, and the devastation that it caused. It drove many people out of business at that time. I visited many of those people in those awful circumstances.
Of course, you and your colleagues in that factory also lost your jobs, which was devastating.
It is very exciting news that 400 jobs could be created. It demonstrates that we need to be wise when it comes to the proposed climate change legislation. In Northern Ireland, agri-food is such a large sector that we can make our significant contribution to carbon reduction without annihilating it. Mark my words: taking away 50% of beef and dairy production from Northern Ireland will annihilate the agri-food sector and the rural community. If people are genuine about dealing with mental health and stress, they should think very carefully before putting their hand to something that is causing real stress in the rural community. People need to give a bit more consideration to us all finding a way forward on climate change and carbon reduction.