Roughly a third of people in Northern Ireland live in rural areas and it is known that these people are more likely to suffer higher levels of loneliness and social exclusion than their urban counterparts. This week James Speers, President of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU) and Ambassador for Rural Wellbeing with Inspire shares his thoughts on the issue of social isolation and identifies some of the opportunities within rural communities to tackle this problem.
There are many challenges identified with living in a rural area. Rural dwellers are more likely to suffer higher levels of loneliness and social exclusion than their urban counterparts. Vulnerable and marginalised groups such as lone parents, ethnic minorities, migrant workers, gay and lesbian people, the elderly and people with physical and intellectual disabilities may face even greater isolation.
The barrier of stigma and factors such as fear about confidentiality in small rural communities can also prevent individuals experiencing mental health issues from reaching out and making use of services.
I feel lucky that so far I have experienced positive mental health, which I put down to having strong family support and a strong social and peer support network. A key aspect of this network has been my longstanding participation as a member of the Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU).
Through my role in YFCU I am very aware of the challenges faced by those involved in the farming community, especially the challenges faced by young people living in more isolated settings. People often approach me at public events or even at the local livestock markets who are aware of me as President of the YFCU and take the opportunity to have a chat with me about a concern they may be facing.
I have come to realise that people are often unsure of where to turn for help if they are in difficulty or distress and one of my main priorities in my role as President of the YFCU and Ambassador for Rural Wellbeing with Inspire is to engage with the rural community and spread information on how people can look after their wellbeing.
What has really helped me build friendships and my own personal skills has been my participation of YFCU. YFCU is a diverse organisation and offers young people aged 12-30 the opportunity to be involved in range of competitions, training and education, and exchange programmes. Activities can range from farming specific interests such as livestock judging, to programmes aimed at developing an individual’s personal and social development such as public speaking, drama performances or group debating.
My advice for young and old alike living in farming or rural communities would be to take opportunities to get involved in activities with local groups. As well as enabling people to make connections with other people within their local areas, these groups and organisations can be a great resource for information and can help signpost people to other sources of support that they may not have been aware of.
I would also appeal to everyone to strike up a conversation with anyone they feel might be feeling lonely or isolated. It has often been my experience that by having simple conversations with people they have subsequently opened up to discuss an issue or concern they are experiencing. I feel that it will take the combined effort of everyone to tackle the issue of social isolation but there are many small and practical steps that we can all take to help contribute.
What do you think could be done to help tacke rural isolation? Are there any local initiatives in your area that help with loneliness? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
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