Back in May, when the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) committee published a report on rural mental health, its conclusions were stark. “While experience of nature and the countryside is consistently identified as potentially beneficial for people’s mental health,” it said, “our evidence is equally clear that the isolation inherent in rural living poses a significant challenge to the mental health of those who reside and work in these areas.”
Children and young people are not immune to these challenges. Indeed, living in remote areas means these groups “share various challenges: poor transport infrastructure, fewer local choices, alienation and isolation… poor digital connectivity, a lack of opportunities to socialise outside school and significant barriers to accessing support when needed.” Issues made even more acute among poorer students and those with protected characteristics.
Dartmoor Multi Academy Trust supports thousands of children and young people across Devon. It is a beautiful, vibrant area full of brilliant people, but so much of what the committee said undeniably rang true. In reality, we don’t need MPs to tell us something we can see on a day-to-day basis, and I know the committee’s conclusions resonated with school leaders across the country, not just in Devon.
The Children’s Society has found that as many as 1 in 6 students aged 5 to 16 are likely to have a mental health problem, with nearly 40 per cent of those aged 6 to 16 suffering from a deterioration in their mental health since 2017. Undeniably exacerbated by the social isolation created by numerous lockdowns during Covid, the need for expanded and comprehensive mental health support for our young people has become an aching need – but one schools and trusts are unable to deliver single-handedly. This is particularly true in rural areas, where help is often much less accessible.
How sobering then, to see the government take such a lax attitude in its response to the EFRA committee. Though the government recognised those in rural areas “may face specific challenges in accessing the mental health services that they need,” they suggest “existing channels” will be sufficient to counteract this. Indeed, they surmise there is no need to ‘rural proof’ the various schemes and strategies being put in place.
To some extent, I understand the argument. We need to ensure there is consistent access to mental health support services across the country, and not fall into a ‘postcode lottery’. More so, we do not want to needlessly stigmatise rural areas, or continually flag to our young people that they may be more socially isolated than their inner-city peers. Perceptions are powerful, but it should be possible to diagnose and deliver on specific, regional needs without throwing off the wider balance.
Additionally, though there are undeniably significant steps being taken to better understand, support, and improve the country’s collective mental health, an overarching strategy is lacking. In its response, the government cites several interesting and necessary plans, but they are being rolled out on different timescales in different departments. Without much-needed coordination, it is highly likely that whole groups will slip through the cracks – thereby depriving those in need of the support they deserve. As is so often the case, those in rural areas are most likely to suffer from this lack of join-up.
It has become something of a cliché to say the education sector is facing crises on multiple fronts. Yet the issue of mental health among our young people is reaching a terrible tipping point. We need solutions which are joined-up, fully funded, and tailored to the specific challenges associated with each region and demographic. Rural communities are a key part of this puzzle, and deserve our care and attention.