When the good life turns bad

PUBLISHED: 18:12 13 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:11 20 February 2013

When the good life turns bad

When the good life turns bad

Rural living is not as idyllic as outsiders often think, but help is available through a network of support, says Sharon Chilcott

When the good life turns bad

Rural living is not as idyllic as outsiders often think, but help is available through a network of support, says Sharon Chilcott

Most people living in rural areas have household incomes in excess of the national average, but behind the statistics, and among Shropshires idyllic scenery, life in the countryside can be tough.

In country areas, the poor, the isolated and the vulnerable are all too often hidden from view and far from help. As a result, country-dwellers are increasingly turning to support networks such as the Rural Stress Helpline and the Shropshire Rural Support Group.

"We are recording a substantially growing number of calls and cases from rural and farming people experiencing problems such as depression, stress, relationship difficulties, health, finance, neighbour disputes and business difficulties," says Kathryn Payne, Fundraising Officer for the Arthur Rank Centre, which runs the Rural Stress Helpline, a national, confidential listening and signposting service.

"The problems are often driven by ageing populations in villages, pressure on housing, the rising cost of living in the countryside, poor public transport, closure of local services, rising fuel and food prices. Current budget cuts are also predicted to have more of an effect on the rural population than the urban."

There are other factors too, particularly among the farming community. These include farmers giving up the business they know and love because sons and daughters dont want to follow in their footsteps and having to diversify or increase their herd size and invest heavily in machinery, livestock or buildings in order to survive. Many farmers and rural businesses have to deal with business uncertainty from one season to another; which puts stress on them and family relationships. Brenda Sturrock, who runs the Shropshire Rural Support Network, was recently contacted by 15 different farmers struggling to understand why they had not received their Single Farm Payments and has been able to help them all to obtain the outstanding amounts.

The Arthur Rank Centre runs its Rural Stress Helpline as part of a wide-ranging programme of help for the rural community and its churches of all faiths. Regionally, the helpline, opened in 2006, and the Farm Crisis Network, which the centre helped set up in 1995, work in association with Shropshire Rural Support Network. This was started in 1992 by dairy farmer and county NFU chairman Clifford Evans, who was concerned about the number of young people in the countryside committing suicide. He assembled a group of like-minded country people to befriend and help in a time of need. The initiative grew at one time there was a West Midland group involving Herefordshire, Shropshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. However, as funding became scarce, the structure reverted to single counties taking responsible for their own finances.

Brenda Sturrock says: "We help anyone in the rural environment with their many and varied problems. We help with 50 to 60 cases a year, some being settled within days or weeks and some taking years. Cases are very varied. There is an awful lot of depression in the countryside, it can be a lonely life. We also see alcoholism and family problems but I am glad to say that we do not have as many suicides as when Clifford started the organisation.

"All our volunteers are country people who can understand the way of life and relate to the problems. We have regular training sessions and talks from qualified people and have built up a very useful network of doctors, solicitors, police, health workers, housing officials, vets, mental health teams and others who we can refer to as necessary. As co-ordinator, I find it very useful to have these professionals to turn to in time of need.

"I work from home and there are no office hours and calls can be made at any time, some coming in at 6.30am and some at 9.30pm. People know they will only speak to one person. We attend all the agricultural shows in the county with our banner or display stand and it is lovely when people we have helped in the past come to see us and give us an update on their lives."

It is a big step for most people to pick up the phone to talk to a stranger about a problem, but says Karen Ellis, Helpline Manager for the Rural Stress Helpline, based at Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth: "We listen, were non-judgemental and confidential. We try to get people to talk about how they are feeling. Sometimes its difficult for the person to pinpoint why they are feeling anxious because theres a multiplicity of problems; one thing leads to another."

The helpline is not able to give advice, but can suggest organisations that might help and as well as working closely with the Shropshire Rural Support Network, can refer the person, with their agreement, to other groups, such as MIND and CAB.

Karen describes just some examples of the sorts of pressures those turning to the helpline have faced (details have been changed to preserve confidentiality):

A man on a smallholding who suffers from depression and has financial difficulties needed to make decisions about keeping or selling his animals as his health had deteriorated. Selling some stock would ease his financial burden but the animals were his reason for getting out of bed each day and he was struggling with decisions.

A woman has been left alone, isolated and depressed after her 34-year marriage broke down. She doesnt drive and lives on a busy road with few footpaths: there are few local activities and nowhere to meet people, not even a village shop. She feels she has no-one to turn to for help and is desperately lonely. She was put in touch with the local church, a lay person visits her regularly and takes her to coffee mornings where she is slowly making new friends.

A farmer has been struggling to keep his farm business afloat and care for his sick wife. With no-one to help out on the farm, in just a few months he has watched his lifetimes work and his familys home disappear. His thoughts turn to suicide. He felt better after talking in confidence, and was helped to find practical solutions to his problems through local support groups such as Farm Crisis Network.

An elderly lady with a disability contacted us because she felt isolated within her community. She was waiting to be moved to a bungalow and the whole situation had become very stressful. The local rural support group provided help and the lady rang the Helpline from time to time when things became difficult for her. She has now moved to her bungalow and is very settled. She rang recently to thank us for listening and for helping her through a very stressful time.

Help at hand
Rural Stress Helpline: 0845 094 8286
Farm Crisis Network: 0845 367 9990
Shropshire Rural Support Network: 0845 4505888.

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