8 August 1997

NETWORKING WHICH COUNTERS STRESS…

Progress through partnership is the motto of the Rural Stress Information Network. Ann Rogers went to Warwickshire to find out more about it

TO MANY people the words database and networking are just jargon.

To distressed people like the cowman fearful of losing his home along with his job, and the farmer whose bank is about to foreclose, such words would appear to offer little comfort. But, through the Rural Stress Information Network, they mean support for those ready to aid the cowman and the farmer and a means of sourcing the most appropriate assistance.

The history of the RSIN, which is based in the Arthur Rank Centre at the National Agricultural Centre, Warwick-shire, can be traced back to projects like Gloucester Farming Friends set up in 1991, a group of people prepared to listen to and support their fellows in times of stress. This was followed by the launch of the Herefordshire Rural Stress Initiative, the first of many county schemes that let people know where to turn for help.

Numerous organisations are concerned about the health and welfare of rural people. The list includes the NFU, the Department of Health, MAFF, ADAS, the Samaritans, the Health and Safety Executive and the churches. Represen-tatives from these organisations were among those who formed a working group in 1993 to look at what was happening, and took part in a conference on rural stress and suicide at the National Agricultural Centre.

The conference identified a need for co-ordination and the Rural Stress Information Network was launched in Dec 1996 to fulfill that role. It collects, and disseminates information to help those giving support, whether it be on a one-to-one basis where, for example, a wife is providing the support for a husband breaking down under strain, or an organisation providing a back-up for a wide rural community.

"We are gathering information about what is happening in rural areas," explains director Nick Read. "At least 40 counties have their rural initiatives or local support groups. We need to discover why some succeed and some dont.

"We have to make support as readily available as possible and to build in quality assurance. We have to improve communications between organisations and people who dont belong to any organisation at all, such as farmers to whom other farmers turn."

Spokesman

Rural stress is not a new subject for Nick. While senior technical adviser with the NFU, he was also the organisations spokesman for rural stress and in his private life he is a non-stipendiary priest in an Oxfordshire parish. So he knew many of the people and organisations in the field before he was seconded by the NFU to RSIN. His secondment is for a two-year period with an option on a third year and the NFU contributes to his salary as part of its sponsorship.

Nick works from home but is on the road three days out of five meeting volunteers and professionals, and setting up local strategies to help reduce the causes of stress and bring support where needed.

RSIN is an unincorporated association, he explains. Trustees will be elected in September but RSIN has already contacted a wider advisory group, which includes the Womens Institute, ACRE, the Development Board for Rural Wales and individual community councils.

Information is to be available on the Internet and Nick aims to make it possible to update the database at county level. Meanwhile information gathering is well under way and this includes the gathering of research material to help achieve RSINs aim of becoming an authoritative source of information.

"We dont want to create a massive database where the database exists somewhere else, but although a lot of information exists on database nobody has actually drawn it together.

"Much research is not published," says Nick who is keen to have copies of college projects. "Now researchers are coming to us before starting a project.

"Most of the research on farming stress comes from the US, but we have partner groups in western Europe and are sharing good practice guides."

Training is another aspect of RSIN work, particularly helping officials and others who deal with rural people to recognise those suffering from stress and to alert people or services which may be able to help. Young people are just as vulnerable to stress as others and Nick is working with the Young Farmers Club to produce a package which will enable club leaders to recognise the symptoms and know what to do to help.

He is also working with the Welsh Office and other organisations setting up a conference to be held in October on preventing and dealing with rural stress in Wales. "The important work comes after the conference," says Nick. "That is working with the organisations that attended the conference and beginning to develop a campaign."

Debt counselling

The BSE crisis proved that networking can help. "Within 24 hours of the crisis point we were able to let people know through the network what help was available – not just the Samaritans but where you could go for debt counselling, for example.

"We had discussions with trading standards officers and others about what was happening in the farming community, and we tried to get information in ancillary trade journals where people were losing their jobs.

"Another area where we did a lot was talking to the Press post-BSE. The Press became more responsible where they reported suicides, and we talked to the foreign Press too, including Germanys.

"If there was a crisis tomorrow, say, in the horticultural industry, we have good information to give which we would try and publicise as much as possible."

Rural Stress Information Network inquiries, phone or fax (01608-811771).

A conference on dealing with rural stress in Wales is the next major project for RSIN director Nick Read.