After the disease, the counselling begins

Amy Woodhouse says that dealing with foot and mouth disease
requires mental health services as well. 

After months of worry and uncertainty, Tony Blair has now
informed us that the foot and mouth disease outbreak is under
control and we are at the “beginning of the end”. This is certainly
great news for the country, but for mental health services this
announcement should be viewed as a call to action.

When the media attention has disappeared, and the financial
assistance dried up, we are likely to see mental health needs come
to the fore. We should not underestimate the impact the disease
will have on the mental health of rural communities.

The sheer scale of the problem means that there will be a great
number of people in rural areas needing mental health support, and
this will be the case long after the crisis has dissipated.

It is the responsibility of mental health agencies to respond to
these needs, and so far, we’ve been a bit slow on the uptake. Part
of this is because we are just not properly geared up to dealing
with mental health problems in rural communities at the best of
times, never mind when disaster strikes. Mental health services are
more difficult to develop in geographically dispersed settings, and
cost more. This has meant that traditionally, we have focused on
“people to services, rather than services to people”. Unfortunately
this system just doesn’t work for the majority of rural service

Another part of the problem is that it is difficult to know just
how best to respond. RuralMinds is currently working to get
information to rural communities about where to find help. We have
produced 500,000 foot and mouth first aid kits for this purpose and
are in the process of distributing them throughout England and
Wales. While this is much needed work, we are conscious that the
kit only does what it says on the tin; it is first aid.

Alongside information, we also need to get long-term support
structures in place for individuals with mental health needs
arising from the outbreak. There should be a greater focus on rural
development work, initially to develop self-help groups in response
to the crisis, but ultimately to improve mental health services in
rural communities across the board.

If one good thing has arisen out of the current crisis, it is
that it has raised awareness that people living in rural
communities can and do experience mental distress. The countryside
is not necessarily just somewhere you go to get well.

The health and social care sector has its fashions like any
other industry. There may be an opportunity at present to lever
resources for rural work. But we need to make sure that these
resources are used to benefit the mental health needs of rural
communities, not just while the spotlight is on them, but for the
years to come.

Amy Woodhouse is information and training co-ordinator
for Ruralminds. It can be contacted on 02476 414366.

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