Beyond the idyllic: the challenges of rural isolation

In support of Mental Health Awareness Week, the CLA’s Tom Wedd explains the challenges of isolation in rural areas and the ways that we can address it
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The picturesque charm of rolling hills and quaint villages in England and Wales can belie a hidden hardship for many residents. Whilst the tranquillity holds appeal, the realities of rural isolation for many can result in a lack of essential services, limited social interaction, and unreliable digital connectivity. These factors create significant challenges, impacting everything from mental health to access to education, employment and healthcare.

This isolation is particularly acute for farmers, a profession long recognised for its loneliness. Rural settings with sparse populations mean farmers often work in solitude, and this has intensified with increased mechanisation as fewer people are required to work on farms.

While many farmers find peace and value in working independently, figures suggest that the inherent isolation of agriculture does raise significant safety concerns. Despite employing just 1.5% of the UK workforce, agriculture ranks as one of the most hazardous professions due to the high number of accident-related fatalities. It's a sector responsible for a staggering 15-20% of all work-related fatalities, with devastating consequences for both farm families and businesses.

The emotional toll of working alone can be significant as well. Long hours of working in solitude further limit opportunities for building social connections which can fuel stress, depression, anxiety, and even suicide – unfortunately, a risk factor common among farmers. Conversely, mental health struggles can increase the likelihood of accidents when working solo.

A 2022 study by the Farming Community Network (FCN) and researchers from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Rural Policy Research sheds light on the impact of rural isolation. Interviews with farmers and support workers revealed several key factors, including a perceived lack of public understanding and appreciation. Some farmers felt disconnected from wider society, expressing a feeling that the public is often unaware of the complexities and pressures of modern agriculture. The study linked this type of loneliness to mental health issues, with some participants even experiencing verbal abuse. One farmer described feeling alienated in his own community due to changing demographics.

The study proposes recommendations to bridge the gap between farmers and non-farming communities. These include:

  • Increased community engagement with agriculture: initiatives like farm tours, educational programs, or events connecting people with local food sources can foster understanding.
  • Improved public dialogue: open conversations about food and farming can address misconceptions and create empathy for the challenges farmers face.
  • Supporting local food networks: connecting farmers directly with consumers fosters appreciation for the work involved.
  • Government support: streamlining regulations and paperwork while ensuring responsible practices can alleviate stress for farmers.

While there are many factors which can exasperate the sense of rural isolation, by fostering stronger bonds and addressing the disconnect, we can create a more positive and supportive environment for our rural communities, particularly those in agriculture.

Alex Phillimore, Head of Communications and Development at the Farming Communication Network, comments that one important area of focus is young people who are starting out on their career path in the farming industry. Many going into agriculture are leaving the support network of family and friends and are required to build new social networks wherever they find themselves. One way they can do this is by joining a Young Farmers’ Club or by getting in touch with their local FCN county group.

It’s important we recognise that anyone can feel lonely, isolated or disconnected from others – not just those who are lone working or living independently, but also people who have networks, friends or family around them

Alex Phillimore, Farming Communication Network

Alex says: “FCN is here 365 days of the year to talk – whether you have a specific worry or concern, or you just feel you need to chat. Our volunteers understand farming life and its unique pressures, and are here to listen to you, and to support you in finding a positive way forward.”

If you have any questions at all, FCN can be contacted in confidence on 03000 111 999 (7am-11pm) or at