Why connecting rural communities has never been more important - & how ACRE Network members are promoting mental health at this difficult time
Phillip Vincent, ACRE’s Public Relations and Communications Manager takes a look at some of things rural charities are doing to encourage acts of kindness and promote community wellbeing as part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2020
Even before Covid-19 upturned the world as we knew it, rural communities faced challenges when it came to mental health. According to Public Health England, an aging population combined with isolation, fuel poverty and often poor access to health services and broadband create conditions where loneliness can be a significant problem for many rural residents. And the effects of loneliness should not be underestimated – there is evidence to suggest that this can increase the risk of premature death by 30%.
When I told her about the lawn mowing volunteer, I thought she was going to cry - CCS Village Agent, Steve
Enter Coronavirus. The Mental Health Foundation reports that one in four adults surveyed at the beginning of April said they had experienced feelings of loneliness in the past two weeks – a stark contrast to just one in ten who reported this before the lockdown began. And aside from the isolation that comes with social distancing, many people too are wrestling with financial concerns, are worried about their jobs, are coming to terms with recent bereavements or finding their relationships under strain.
But there is hope. This year, Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is telling a story about kindness - how simple acts of helping other people can play an essential role in reducing the social, economic and mental health consequences of the crisis. This is a story ACRE Network members know well. For nearly a century these independent rural charities have been bringing residents together to promote strong communities where people look out for one another. As Public Health England recognises, “bringing groups together in a village hall or other community space provides the opportunity to reach people with services, helping them to look after their wellbeing”.
Over the past week, I’ve been speaking to colleagues in the ACRE Network to find out what they are doing to promote mental health at this time of crisis. All 38 members are continuing to operate – albeit remotely – and are supporting some innovative projects connecting people and providing support to those who most need it.
Many of our members are supporting village agents or good neighbour schemes – the idea being that volunteers run errands for (usually older) people who might need a little more support such as walking the dog or collecting medication. But with Covid-19, these schemes have taken on another level of importance – providing a lifeline to many people who are self-isolating in rural communities. For example, the Community Council for Somerset has received over 42K enquiries to its county-wide scheme since the lockdown began. One such act of kindness by CCS Village Agent, Steve bought a vulnerable elderly resident to tears when he put her in touch with a volunteer to mow her overgrown lawn. “When I told her about the lawn mowing volunteer, I thought she was going to cry.”
ACRE Network members are also providing guidance and resources on their websites to help rural residents take care of their mental health and signposting to other health providers locally. For example, Dorset Community Action recently delivered a webinar on managing wellbeing during a crisis.
There are some more innovative schemes too. YMCA Community Lincs has set up Operation Pen Pall in East Lindsey encouraging young people to write letters, short stories and drawings which are being sent to vulnerable older residents to make their day just that bit brighter! Community Action Northumberland recently delivered 200 ‘grow your own starter packs’ to provide rural households with a fun activity during the lockdown and keep spirits high. And in Leicestershire, RCC has been providing free coffee to key workers and volunteers to offer them some respite using their rural community outreach service ‘Rural Coffee Connect’.
We’re extremely proud of how our members are connecting rural communities and tackling mental health at this difficult time. But this work also needs to be sustained and built upon to help rural areas recover from Covid-19. Over the coming months ACRE will be doing everything it can to make the case for continued funding to support such initiatives.