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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, May 11, 2023


Supporting Mental Health in Rural Communities

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-06107, in the name of Rachael Hamilton, on supporting mental health in rural communities. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. Members who wish to participate should press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. I am struggling to hear. I wonder whether we can turn up the volume in the chamber. Your mic is very quiet.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I will speak up and hope that that will improve the situation, Mr Carson.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises what it sees as the unique challenges being faced by farmers and the wider agricultural industry as a result of vast input cost inflation caused by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, among other factors; commends farmers and crofters for the role that it considers they play at the heart of rural communities, producing high-quality sustainable food, supporting thousands of jobs, helping to tackle climate change and enhancing biodiversity despite the pressures that they face; understands that these pressures contribute to concerns around the mental health of Scottish farmers and crofters, including in the Scottish Borders; notes the work of the National Farmers Union Scotland in working with its members to protect the physical and mental wellbeing of all those working and living in farming communities and highlighting the issue of mental health in farming, agriculture and countryside management more widely, alongside the work of the Countryside Alliance, the Mental Health Foundation Scotland, Scottish Land and Estates, the National Rural Mental Health Forum and the Poverty Alliance, among others, for highlighting the issue and working towards finding solutions, and notes the calls encouraging those who are struggling with their mental health to access help and support from either their friends or family or the many services available, including RSABI.


Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

It is a privilege to bring the motion for debate to the chamber today. I know that the members and colleagues joining me in the chamber are incredibly supportive of the topic and I thank them for that.

During yesterday’s rural questions at portfolio question time, we heard the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands speak genuinely about the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution and the national rural mental health forum in response to a question from my colleague Alexander Stewart. Her response showed that we can discuss the issue without scoring political points; it is an issue on which politicians can agree, and that is exactly what I hope to achieve from today’s debate.

Last May, alongside my colleague Craig Hoy, I hosted a round-table discussion on the issue with a wide group of stakeholders from rural industries and the third sector. Organisations such as Scottish Land & Estates, Age Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, the Countryside Alliance and the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland attended. It was clear from that meeting that there is so much more that we could do to support their work.

We identified the need to tackle the stigma around mental health as well as the importance of early intervention, but those issues are universal. The key takeaway from the discussion for me was that rural communities face entirely different mental health challenges from those faced by people in cities and our response to those challenges must be sensitive to that.

There is a growing recognition that rural contexts can be overlooked in the design of mental health services, and that led to the creation of the national rural mental health forum. I welcome Jim Hume to the gallery today. The cabinet secretary outlined that the Scottish Government is providing the forum with £50,000 of support, but I think that we all got the sense that she wished that she could go further.

People living in rural areas—farmers, crofters and agricultural workers—often find it difficult to access mental health care. Like other people across Scotland, they experience depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, self-harming behaviour and anxiety, no matter their age, gender or location. On top of that, remoteness, isolation and small-town stigma can exacerbate those problems, as can the occupational challenges that rural workers face.

Take gamekeepers, for example, who face vitriol and abuse on a daily basis for simply doing their jobs looking after the countryside. They must also contend with the threat of losing their livelihoods, which looms over their heads as a result of the strict but necessary management of gun licences. All the while, their working life could see them go for days without seeing another person.

It is those challenges that led us to call on the Government to establish a rural workers task force to look at ways of supporting those workers with their mental health. I was encouraged, as I think that we all were, when the former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon committed to looking again at those proposals. I know that things have changed a little in Government since then and that such commitments can fall by the wayside. However, the past few years have been tough for people living in rural areas.

Fergus Ewing (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)

I entirely agree with what Rachael Hamilton has said thus far. Does she also recognise the really critical and practical work of the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution, which is carried out by volunteers who provide assistance particularly to farmers and crofters who live remotely and may not see anyone for weeks on end, and give invaluable support to people in those predicaments throughout rural Scotland?

I can give you the time back, Ms Hamilton.

Rachael Hamilton

I completely agree with Fergus Ewing that RSABI does good work. I will mention that a little later, because the work that RSABI does has formed the basis of some of the proposals that I will talk about today.

I was talking about the challenges that farmers and rural workers have been facing not only in making sure that we had food on our plates throughout Covid, but because of having to work every single day and being unable to take a day off. They have also faced increased energy and input costs, due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Those costs have had to be absorbed by people working in the agricultural sector, which has put a huge financial strain on their balance sheets.

That is why my party and I have taken the initiative to produce detailed proposals to establish a Scottish rural mental health task force. I will explain a little more about that as I go on. Our plan will ensure that rural provision of general practitioners is placed on a sustainable footing to bolster mental health services in rural communities. It would create a network of mental health first aiders by training residents, neighbours, members of local clubs and professionals such as vets, feed merchants and rural sales representatives, so that the farmers and rural workers with whom they frequently engage can get the maximum and best benefit from that interaction. Those mental health first aiders would be trained to identify the signs of poor mental health and would encourage mental health training among rural workers. We would establish a short-life working group to launch a viable and collaborative way of delivering that ambition.

I would, of course, be delighted to discuss those proposals further with the cabinet secretary and her colleagues in Government. For all that we disagree on, I know that this Government takes mental health seriously, but the Government is only one piece of the puzzle.

At the annual dinner of NFU Scotland earlier this year, I was fortunate to sit next to Marc Gascoigne. He founded Farmstrong in New Zealand, which has now been established in Scotland. We spoke at length about his organisation’s work in supporting farmers’ wellbeing. I also thank Virgin Money, which might sound like a slightly unlikely contributor to a debate on this subject. Virgin Money partnered with Farmstrong and funded its roadshow throughout Scotland—something that was undoubtedly fostered by Virgin Money’s relationship with its predecessor bank, the Clydesdale Bank, which had a strong relationship with the agricultural sector and worked across the countryside.

That conversation with Marc Gascoigne strengthened my resolve to bring this debate to the chamber so that we can discuss what more we can do to tackle these issues. We are joined today by representatives from RSABI, Change Mental Health, the NFUS and SLE, who have also undertaken fantastic work on this issue. Their role, and that of the third sector and other rural organisations, cannot be overstated. Whether in signposting people towards specific services or simply providing someone to talk to, their work is absolutely vital and I am delighted that they have joined us for the debate.

I have spoken at length about the issue that I plan to tackle, but I will finish on a more personal note. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy was kind enough to prepare a briefing for today’s debate and drew attention to the fact that women working in agriculture face a higher burden of depression than men. Before I entered politics, I was an agronomist, visiting farms across Scotland and the north of England. There is no doubt that, for many of the farmers whom I worked with, I was the only person whom they spoke to on any given day. Can you imagine that? Poor things.

For me, they could literally be the only people whom I spoke to that week. In my role, I was one of only two women out of 100 people across the UK, which brought its own challenges. I had long days with little interaction with others and I had to deal with the odd throwaway comment about my being a woman in agriculture. It is so easy to see how things can build up to a point where it becomes difficult to cope.

I am sorry that I do not have time to say more about young farmers. I hope that some of my colleagues will mention them, because they face the challenges of social isolation as well. I was thankful to have a fantastic support network around me for anything that happened to me, but not everybody is so lucky. I hope that we can work together to make things better.


Emma Harper (South Scotland) (SNP)

I congratulate Rachael Hamilton on securing this debate. It is a really important issue, and Ms Hamilton has highlighted that very well.

As an MSP who covers a large rural area—Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders—I am aware of the challenges that rurality can pose for positive mental health, but also of the benefits that it can bring. I am also aware of the increased challenges that our farming community faces, which the motion mentions. The Ukraine war and the cost crisis have added increased stress, as has leaving the European Union.

This has already been said, but it is worth repeating that the evidence shows us that people in rural Scotland are more likely than others to experience depression, suicidal thoughts and feelings, self-harming behaviour and anxiety, no matter their age, gender or location. They are at higher risk of becoming isolated, and that risk is worsened by remoteness, stigma and fear. Stigma is a huge issue and it needs to be addressed. It is therefore right that we take whatever action is possible to support the health and wellbeing of our rural communities.

Some 98 per cent of Scotland’s land mass is rural and 17 per cent of Scotland’s population lives in rural Scotland, which equates to just under 1 million people. A lack of anonymity has been identified as a barrier to people seeking help at an early stage in rural areas. Evidence from Change Mental Health, which was formerly known as Support in Mind, shows that people in rural Scotland want support to be low level and to be delivered in non-clinical, informal settings by trusted people and local networks.

Services need to be close to the place of need and should be designed to include mobile and digital services and outreach. The outreach approach must recognise the significant stress that is involved in travelling to appointments for those with poor mental health. I therefore ask the cabinet secretary whether further targeted advertising and engagement can take place across rural Scotland to promote the means through which people can access support and to promote the wider message that it is okay not to be okay.

I am aware of the research from RSABI that shows that the Scottish index of multiple deprivation struggles to identify people living in deprivation in rural areas. That can lead to some believing that living in rural Scotland is idyllic, whereas in fact deprivation and poverty exist and are becoming exacerbated there. The lowest-wage economies in Scotland are in rural areas, and nine out of 10 people who are income deprived do not live in a recognised deprived area.

Evidence suggests that people who live in rural areas experience deprivation differently from those who live in towns and cities. The particular issues in rural areas include the need for higher consumption of fuel for heating and transport. I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly’s economy committee, and our current inquiry is highlighting that the challenging cost of oil for heating is a major issue. That can contribute to poorer mental health.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

Does Emma Harper agree that we need to do a lot better in creating the parity that should exist between physical and mental health services? That does not exist in rural areas, for sure, but it does not exist in much of Scotland. Does she agree that we should unite to seek a rapid improvement in that regard?

Emma Harper

I thank Stephen Kerr for that intervention. I am also a member of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, and a nurse, and a lot of my work as a former co-convener of the cross-party group on mental health has dealt with the parity that is needed. A lot of work is going on. I support what Stephen Kerr asks for, but I know that a lot of work is under way right now, especially in the work that I am doing in the Parliament.

Less accessibility to key services such as childcare, broadband and transport links can also be a challenge. The limit to opportunities to earn adequate income, in comparison with those in urban areas, is part of the issue. I am conscious of time, Presiding Officer, but I am aware from my own casework that many issues need to be supported.

I also want to give a nod to former MSP Jim Hume and to Kira McDiarmid, from Change Mental Health, whom I welcome to the gallery.

There is so much other work that I could talk about as well. RSABI has already been highlighted. It is another fantastic charity that operates to support those in our agricultural communities.

Mental health is everyone’s business, and we must collectively work to tackle it in all our areas, including our rural areas.


Tess White (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing such an important topic to the chamber—for shining a light on an epidemic that is often hidden. Both Rachael Hamilton and I represent areas that have large remote and rural populations. More than half of the population of Aberdeenshire live in rural areas, compared with around 17 per cent of the population of the rest of Scotland.

However, mental health interventions have often been developed through the lens of urban populations, but what works in Glasgow will not necessarily work in Glenbervie. It is vital that policy makers recognise the unique nature of mental health in rural and farming communities, so that we can respond better. That is why advocacy by organisations such as NFU Scotland, the Farm Safety Foundation and the Countryside Alliance, as well as the work of academic institutions such as Robert Gordon University, which is in my region, are so important.

In the north-east, more than 22,000 people are employed in the food, drink and agriculture sectors. However, the awful reality is that suicide rates for agriculture workers are among the highest in the United Kingdom. Sadly, one farmer a week dies by suicide.

As we have heard, farmers often work in isolation. Loneliness frequently affects their mental health. Financial worries, especially given input-price inflation, can weigh heavily on their minds. The 2021 documentary “Unearthing Farming Lives”, which was conceived by several organisations in the north-east of Scotland, thoughtfully examines those issues.

The north-east has also suffered from the recent avian flu outbreak, which has resulted in the deaths of thousands of hens. That is a devastating loss for businesses.

In addition, although spring heralds the lambing and calving season, there are associated pressures and stresses for farmers. Livestock worrying, for example, can have a devastating impact on their mental health. Recently, there have been the horrendous cases of one dog mauling 17 lambs to death in Fife, and four lamb deaths in Moray.

As we have heard, farming can be both physically and psychologically tough.

Emma Harper

Tess White mentioned livestock worrying. It is great that we raise awareness at every opportunity about attacks on livestock. Does she agree that the changes to legislation that were made by my member’s bill will help to raise awareness so that we can reduce incidents of livestock worrying?

Tess White

I thank Emma Harper for raising that matter. Anything that can prevent livestock worrying is to be applauded. The behaviour of dog walkers is also important—they must keep dogs on leads at this time of year.

We must continue to break down the barriers, including loneliness, that might prevent farmers and the agricultural community from accessing help.

It is good that—as we have heard today—young farmers are doing a lot of good work. They are piloting the “Thrive” mental wellbeing app, which provides live access to qualified therapists who can give advice on many things, especially mental health. We need to look more closely at such initiatives.

I will make two final comments. Access to appropriate NHS services to support their mental health can be challenging for people who reside in rural and remote communities. We know that, sadly, there is a shortage of general practitioners and other clinicians in rural areas. The Scottish Government urgently needs to address that in order to prevent the collapse of rural healthcare.

It is good that Mairi Gougeon MSP is here to hear my next comment, because Angus mental health patients have also been badly let down by the closure in 2018 of the Mulberry unit at Stracathro hospital, which means that patients have had, and still have, to travel miles to a facility in Dundee where, as the Strang report has revealed, there are serious systemic issues with mental health services. Residents in Angus feel deeply let down by that decision.

I hope that the minister will address those points in her closing speech.


Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I also thank Rachael Hamilton for bringing this important debate. I was aware of her knowledge about and thoughts on the matter, but her speech was really good and well received. I thank her for it.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate on behalf of Scottish Labour. Like many members in the chamber, I represent a rural region—South Scotland—and I recognise much of what is in the motion for debate. The agriculture industry is undoubtedly one of the most challenged out there—whether that is due to the weather, supply chain issues, uncertainty following the war in Ukraine or soaring energy prices. Farmers, farm workers and crofters are constantly battling the various factors that affect their livelihoods and businesses. With long hours, financial pressures and often isolated workplaces, farmers and the agriculture workforce are more susceptible to their mental health being under strain.

According, as we have heard, to the Office for National Statistics, the suicide rate for male farm workers is three times the male national average. That is a worrying figure, which has persisted over a long period of time. It shows the importance of having a particular focus on improving rural mental health. It is a devastating statistic that we must all take very seriously.

Numerous studies that I came across while preparing for today’s debate highlight the wide range of mental health challenges that face people in rural Scotland. Alarmingly, there are also the false conclusions about the idyllic countryside lifestyle and moving to the countryside for a better life—the kind of thing that we see on the TV, but which is just not the reality for so many people.

I welcome the fact that mental health in rural communities is receiving more attention. It appears that we are beginning to turn a corner in recognising its vital importance to the wellbeing of countryside communities. Nonetheless, let me be clear that recognition on its own will not push the needle forward. It will require considerable and targeted campaigning, as we have heard, and investment over a long period of time. We need a long-term commitment to the issue.

Although investment in mental health services is necessary, that alone will not deliver the change that we need. We require a strong economy that delivers for rural areas and improves the likelihood not only of mental wellbeing but of physical, social and economic wellbeing, which are absolutely essential.

Stephen Kerr

Carol Mochan is making an important point about the need for us to revitalise rural life and the rural economy. One of the key infrastructure projects in that regard is the extension to full coverage of 5G and full-fibre broadband. That one infrastructure project in itself has the power not only to transform the rural economy and rural life but to tackle isolation and loneliness. Does she agree?

I can give you the time back.

Carol Mochan

Thank you.

I absolutely agree. I was fully behind the commitment from the Labour Party in 2019 when we talked about the internet being the equivalent of the libraries of the early 20th century. It opens up opportunities for people and businesses and it absolutely tackles isolation. I think that we would all agree that the pandemic proved that beyond doubt. We need to get that infrastructure work done and we need to prioritise areas where it would make the biggest difference.

For too long, we have focused over much on urban areas. Tess White made a good point about how we should manage services in our rural economies, some of which we have forgotten about.

In the interests of time I will omit other points that I was going to make, and which Emma Harper has already raised, on ensuring that we have good services and that people can see the benefit of meeting up and having places to go to. I believe in the importance of good public services in rural areas.

I thank other members for their contributions. The idea that we should be working together to make such change happen is so important.


Donald Cameron (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to farming, crofting, shooting and deerstalking.

I, too, thank Rachael Hamilton for securing the debate. There have been many excellent speeches so far and each has looked at the issue slightly differently. Ms Hamilton mentioned young farmers; how right she was to focus on them. It goes without saying that they are the future of farming, so it is absolutely right that their mental health should be a focus of the debate.

In every debate that we have on rural issues, we rightly pay tribute to the ways in which farmers, crofters, growers, gamekeepers and others manage the land. We talk about how they have adapted to the need to reduce carbon emissions and to do things more efficiently in order to meet new environmental challenges. We applaud the ingenuity of people in rural Scotland who have driven diversification in agriculture business in order that they can become more sustainable. However, we rarely acknowledge the individuals who are behind all that and—more importantly—their wellbeing.

As other members have said, the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution’s “The Big Farming Survey” found that 36 per cent of people in the UK’s farming community are either probably or possibly depressed. Many do not seek mental health support due to the stigma that is attached to doing so. Levels of depression vary among farming sectors, but the group with the second-highest level in that study was grazing livestock farmers from so-called less favoured areas. That is of particular concern to me because I represent the Highlands and Islands region, where that land status predominates.

The reasons for the figures are multifaceted, and many speakers have developed arguments about them. Isolation and long working hours have been mentioned as key reasons for poor mental health in the sector. The NFU Scotland has noted that farmers face increasing input costs, market volatility and so on.

In another context, some rural workers experience threats and abuse. The British Association for Shooting and Conservation Scotland has highlighted recent Scottish Government research that found that 64 per cent—almost two thirds—of gamekeepers in Scotland experience threatening behaviour or abuse from members of the public at least once a year.

We must also be cognisant that access to mental health services remains difficult for many people across Scotland, and especially for people in rural Scotland. Recent data shows that, in the NHS Highland area alone, almost three quarters of adults are waiting for longer than 18 weeks for mental health treatment, and that nearly half of those who are waiting to be seen have waited for longer than a year. In our island communities waiting times are just as stark. In the Western Isles, half of adults who are waiting are waiting for longer than 18 weeks. In Shetland, almost 40 per cent are waiting for longer than that. We cannot sweep that under the carpet, and Tess White was absolutely right to mention it.

There has to be swift and effective action to bring down waiting times so that people in our rural communities who need specialist support can be seen as a matter of urgency. That is not a role for just the national health service to play. We know that many organisations do fantastic work to support agriculture workers. They have been mentioned already, but I will do so again, because they absolutely deserve it. The NFU Scotland, BASC Scotland, Change Mental Health, and Scottish Land & Estates all do fantastic work to support the mental health of their members and others.

Our agriculture workers and land managers are, as others have said, the custodians and guardians of the Scottish countryside. They do fantastic work that is often not recognised and, without them, Scotland would be a poorer nation. However, warm words do little for those people, who often work in difficult conditions through long hours, and who face a multitude of challenges. All of us here must do much more to support and nourish people in our rural workforce, when it comes to their mental health.


Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I thank and congratulate Rachael Hamilton for bringing this important debate to the chamber. There is a mental health crisis in Scotland—there was one long before the pandemic—and it affects people from all walks of life.

In the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we could all be forgiven for feeling anxious but, although many of us have the option to focus on other matters while the conflict continues, crofters, farmers and agricultural workers are, quite literally, ploughing on. As the motion highlights, there has been a vast rise in inflation in the cost of the products and services that are needed to provide food for our tables. Alongside the impact of Brexit and a slowdown of the world economy due to Covid-19, the conflict in Ukraine has contributed to the inflation rise, and farmers cannot escape its growing impact. They are doing all that they can to cope with financial pressures, ensuring that high-quality produce is available at affordable prices and in fulsome supply, but businesses are at risk from multiple factors.

Leaving Europe has meant not only an impact on inflation or that fewer workers are coming forward to pick produce, but a new uncertainty about the future of farming payments. We are seeing an increase in criminal behaviour, too, such as fly tipping, theft, damage and irresponsible access in the countryside that threatens the welfare of livestock, with dog attacks or people leaving gates open. That impacts financial stability—people do not seem to understand the impact of those actions.

The pressure is on, therefore, and it is on those people who are working to produce food. It is not just about the physical toll of working all hours in all weathers, supporting the environment as well as their families and the wider food supply chain, but about the anxiety and worry about the increasing pressures that I have just described. More support is needed to address the underlying concerns that can contribute to poor mental health. Meanwhile, lack of anonymity in rural Scotland is known to be a barrier to people seeking help at an early stage. Crofters, farmers and agricultural workers often work alone, too, which increases the impact of loneliness, which can be a major contributor to poor mental health.

More widely in rural areas, one in 10 rural jobs is based on an estate business and those businesses are feeling the pressure, too. Any impact on them would see a knock-on effect on unemployment across a community. Those are the communities that face unique challenges of rural deprivation, such as higher fuel costs and poor public transport options.

Scotland’s islands have some of the highest levels of fuel poverty. The winter has been tough, and the weather does not necessarily allow for the heating to be turned off, even in summer. The cross-party group on poverty has opened an inquiry into rural poverty and is encouraging people to share their experiences and views—more information can be found on the Poverty Alliance website.

As I raised in the chamber yesterday, attracting local health and social care staff to live and work in rural and island areas is challenging, and it impacts physical and mental health service provision.

As others have said, poor connectivity makes seeking help or travelling to services more difficult. Communities in the north isles of Shetland, for example, face multiple ferry journeys to reach services on mainland Shetland, while poor rural broadband connections or, often, a complete lack of any digital connectivity or mobile signal—national infrastructure that should be available to all regardless of geography—make it impossible to access online therapeutic services.

However, as the motion reminds us, there is support out there. Several organisations are working to provide tailored support for rural communities and all of them are mentioned in the motion. To conclude, I commend the groups that provide tailored and person-centred support to rural communities.


Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

It is widely accepted that people in rural Scotland are more likely to experience depression and suicidal thoughts and are at a higher risk of self-harming behaviour. No matter their age, gender or even location, there is every chance that they will feel isolated, and that is often worsened by remoteness and fear of stigma.

Individuals need more chances to engage before a wider mental health crisis occurs. That engagement could take the form of a low-level, local and non-clinical setting with shorter waiting times and mobile outreach to all parts of Scotland, all of which would play a huge part in the prevention of mental ill-health.

It is, after all, everyone’s business to tackle mental ill-health, and the excellent work of the national rural mental health forum is vital in driving that. I am pleased to see some of the members of that forum in the public gallery today, including Jim Hume, who once served in the chamber and continues to champion rural Scotland. The forum is a dedicated network of more than 230 organisations from the third, private and public sectors, with an outreach to more than half a million people who live in rural Scotland, including in my constituency of Galloway and West Dumfries.

Essentially, the forum drives change to enable rural people to be open about their mental health by creating a solid evidence base for the work that is needed to improve their lives. Importantly, the forum has developed a programme to influence policy makers to channel resources in a way that brings positive change through a network of rural organisations across Scotland. Any action to tackle mental health topics and issues in rural communities should be taken in close and continuous collaboration with the forum if we seriously want to address the problem.

Lack of anonymity has been identified as a barrier that prevents people from seeking help at an early stage. We must tackle that and create ways for people to connect with one another before their personal crisis occurs. As I have argued on numerous occasions, services should be close to the place of need and they should be designed to include mobile and digital services as well as outreach. However, the outreach approach must also recognise the significant stress caused by travelling to appointments for those with poor mental health.

Mental health care must be mainstreamed within the NHS and should not just be a bolt-on, as it too often is. There must be parity between mental and physical health. Crucially, there must also be increased focus on the needs of our children and young people by providing greater resources to reduce waiting times, especially in relation to self-harming.

We all recognise the important role that the forum has played in tackling mental ill-health through sharing best practice, encouraging collaboration, raising awareness, informing policy and gathering research. It played a crucial role during the Covid-19 pandemic, which had such a negative impact on the wellbeing of the Scottish rural population in particular. It is now having to deal with the cost of living crisis, especially in rural areas, where a low-wage economy is the norm. Evidence suggests that rural people are facing greater anxiety than most because of higher heating and transport costs, and less accessible key services including healthcare, childcare and broadband. People also have limited opportunity to boost their incomes compared to those in urban areas.

I take this opportunity to highlight a scheme that was introduced in 2020 by the Stewartry Rugby Club; there are two members of the scheme here today. A few years ago, two members tragically took their own lives and, on the back of that, a scheme was set up. It included engagement with the Glasgow Warriors and was to help coaches, players and other members who were experiencing mental health issues or emotional distress. Good mental health is promoted on a par with good physical health and players are encouraged to speak out, even if they are just having a bad day. The scheme strives to ensure that everybody in the club is involved in recognising that health in the broadest sense, whether it be physical or mental, is important.

On the back of what the club is doing, I facilitated a meeting of what was very loosely called the Stewartry mental health forum, which is a group made up of a range of mental health organisations, to encourage people to be aware of the appropriate methods of engagement and to have the confidence simply to be able to speak to someone who might be experiencing low mental health. We know how important the first responder is and research shows that someone with poor mental health might only take three chances to reach out. We must therefore make sure that we get it right.

The Scottish Conservatives want a network of trained mental health advisers to be created across Scotland in the heart of our rural communities, to include NFU members, young farmers, sales representatives, auction mart workers and sports coaches, to name just a few. They would be trained to spot the early signs and symptoms of poor mental health and assess the risk of suicide and self-harm, while encouraging the person to access appropriate professional support confidentially.

I look forward to working with Rachael Hamilton and others to see how we can further support groups and individuals across Scotland.


The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Land Reform and Islands (Mairi Gougeon)

I want to start by thanking Rachael Hamilton for securing this debate, which has given us all an opportunity to talk about the hugely important issue of mental health in our rural communities. I also echo Carol Mochan’s point about the genuine, open approach that Rachael Hamilton has taken to the debate and the tone that she set for today’s discussion, which I very much welcome.

I also welcome the chance to set out the Scottish Government’s work on rural mental health and to discuss the challenges that people in rural areas face, because I personally care about these issues, as I represent a rural constituency. Tess White mentioned the Mulberry unit. She will no doubt be aware of my campaign in that regard. That is why the issue of equality of access for our rural communities is particularly close to my heart.

Rural Scotland and our agricultural communities are based on strength and bonds of support. Farmers and crofters already know the value of supporting one another during good times and at times of difficulty. However, as we have heard, that is really difficult given the isolation that people experience precisely because of where they live and work.

As we have heard, particularly from Emma Harper and Finlay Carson, mental health is everyone’s business. Our rural economy is only as healthy as the individuals and communities who help to drive it forward.

The motion mentions some of the issues that are impacting rural Scotland, and I know from my work as cabinet secretary about some of the particular challenges that our land-based workers and communities have faced and continue to face.

We cannot underplay the many challenges for Scotland’s rural, island and coastal communities and businesses, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, Brexit and the cost of living crisis and in the wake of global trends such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food and energy insecurity.

In trying to address those challenges, the First Minister recently set out his vision for Scotland and the outcomes that we aim to achieve as a Government. We will use the powers that we have in Scotland to tackle poverty in all its forms and to protect people across our country as far as we can from the impacts of the cost of living crisis. I will briefly set out a couple of examples of how we are trying to address some of those challenges.

One example is the islands cost crisis emergency fund, which we launched last year. The fund recognises the distinct and particular challenges that our island communities face, as highlighted by Rachael Hamilton and outlined by Beatrice Wishart.

In relation to our agriculture sector and in response to the war in Ukraine, we established, together with industry, a food security and supply task force to monitor and identify any potential disruption resulting from the impact of the war and in recognition of the challenges that our supply chains had faced in recent years—the pandemic, Brexit and the resulting vulnerabilities that were, in turn, exacerbated by the illegal war. That work produced a number of recommendations, which we have implemented. However, all these challenges in the round call on us to act, and they call on us to act now, collectively, and to look across and beyond our policy boundaries.

I now turn to the substantive part of Rachael Hamilton’s motion in relation to mental health and the support available. The motion recognises and welcomes the important work that is being done by the NFUS, the Countryside Alliance, the Mental Health Foundation, Scottish Land & Estates, the national rural mental health forum and the Poverty Alliance. As we heard from members across the chamber, it is vital that we recognise the role of organisations such as RSABI and the work that it does, as well as the work that is being done by the Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs, the Scottish Crofting Federation and all the other agricultural organisations and businesses, too.

We should support businesses such as vet practices, marts, feed merchants and machinery rings, because they all have an important role to play in providing the first line of mental health support to farmers and crofters.

However, we in the Scottish Government also need to recognise our role as an organisation that operates in rural Scotland. Rural payments and inspections division offices, area offices and sub-offices, along with the Animal and Plant Health Agency offices, exist to support farmers and crofters.

Rural vets have a demanding job, with the pressures of providing a 24-hour emergency response service, and they often work alone while helping farmers and crofters in a wide range of difficult situations. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has recognised that in its mind matters initiative, which provides support to improve mental health in all parts of the veterinary profession, and it is currently introducing further support for vets in rural areas.

A lot is already happening to support rural wellbeing, and we are proud to support a range of initiatives through RSABI and the national rural mental health forum. In the last financial year, we committed £50,000 to supporting RSABI, which takes the total Scottish Government support to more than £500,000.

It is important to outline the support that RSABI is able to offer. It provides emotional support through a 24/7 helpline and webchat service. It also provides a wide range of practical support, including on welfare benefits, business reviews and debt signposting, as well as counselling and mediation services. There is also financial support, which can include monthly payments and, potentially, single grants for essentials including food, heating, counselling, disability aids, funerals, retraining and items for the home.

RSABI is also undertaking fantastic work through the development of a Thrive Mental Wellbeing app, which includes a live therapist function. Three young farmers clubs in Scotland are trialling it, and the initial results look encouraging.

Will the cabinet secretary give way?

If I was allowed slightly more time, that would be appreciated, Presiding Officer.

I can give you the time back, cabinet secretary.

You mentioned the app and the work that is being done already. I know that you will be aware that—

Speak through the chair, please, Ms Harper.

Emma Harper

The cabinet secretary will be aware that NHS Inform uses the apps and web information SilverCloud, Daylight and Sleepio. Does she agree that raising awareness of the work that is already under way can help with early interventions?

Mairi Gougeon

Yes, I do. I appreciate the member raising that important point. The fact that she has covered it means that I no longer have to. We need to do what we can to raise awareness of those apps and the support that is available.

I also recognise the work that the SAYFC has done. It runs an established mental health support service for rural young people—the are ewe okay? service. Launched in 2016, the campaign was initially to run for only 12 months, but it was soon realised that it should become a permanent feature. It raises awareness of mental health and wellbeing, with SAYFC members sharing their experiences.

I will briefly mention the national rural mental health forum. The forum has a wide reach. It brings together more than 230 organisations, charities, businesses, research organisations and individuals to focus on knowledge exchange, share experiences and learn about mental health and wellbeing in rural areas. It ensures that the rural voice is heard in policy making.

I am glad that Rachael Hamilton touched on the work of farmstrong, the farmer-led wellbeing programme. I was delighted to get the opportunity to meet Marc Gascoigne at the NFUS annual general meeting in February while he was completing his tour of Scotland and supporting farmers to live well and farm well.

I reiterate my commitment to ensuring that rural communities have the on-going support that they need through the interventions that we have discussed. We have opportunities to do more through our plan for rural Scotland, which the First Minister outlined.

I express my genuine and heartfelt thanks to the organisations that we have talked about. Jim Hume from the national rural mental health forum is in the gallery. I see Carol McLaren from RSABI in the gallery, too. I also mention the NFUS and SLE. I say a huge thank you for the invaluable support that they provide and the work that they continue to do in our rural communities.

I say a final word to anyone who feels that they are struggling at the moment. I encourage them to talk and reach out. All of the organisations that we have mentioned and discussed are here to listen and to help.

That concludes the debate. I suspend this meeting of Parliament until 2.30 pm.

13:39 Meeting suspended.  

14:30 On resuming—