Figures released by the HSE, show 371 calls were received in 2010 to its dedicated helpline, established in 2004 as a practical response to help address the issue of loneliness and isolation experienced by people living in rural areas in Cork and Kerry.
As well as issues around depression and loneliness, the helpline is dealing with callers also expressing concerns about their own financial situation in relation to farming.
Deirdre Scully, local health manager with the HSE South, said people who live in rural communities are often affected by additional issues such as isolation — not just feeling lonely, but real physical isolation where they are miles from their nearest neighbour or village. Lack of public transport and little access to services can also be a real challenge and can compound other problems that people may be experiencing in their lives, she said.
According to the HSE, staff often receive calls from outside its catchment area and deal with those too as best they can, referring people to local services and contacts.
In order for the service to run nationwide, additional staff would be needed.
Meanwhile, Michele Kerrigan, chief executive of Grow, a community-based mental health service, said while there are a number of mental health organisations operating throughout the country, there is no single point of contact for people who feel themselves in need of help. Ms Kerrigan said the gradual erosion of the traditional rural way of life has left thousands of people isolated and vulnerable, and these people often do not know where to turn if there are signs of stress or mental illness.
“Human contact in rural areas is more or less gone, especially for older people,” she said.
“There is no true sense of community anymore, and this is exacerbating any issues that people might have with their mental health.
“Maybe people have lost their job, and they are at a point in their lives where, because of their age, they may not be selected for new employment.
“Or maybe they have lost a loved one, or they are struggling with issues around their sexuality,” said Ms Kerrigan.
“But whatever its causes, the overall message is suicide is not simply something that affects young men — it affects every part of society.”
Grow is running a programme to teach people how to identify issues which can affect mental health.
Gatekeeper is a six-week course and admission is free for the latest running of it, which started this week in Longford.
The initiative also trains people how to handle a situation involving a person who is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
* The HSE Farm and Rural Stress Helpline number is 1800 742 645. The helpline is open daily from 6pm–10pm and is staffed by professionals who offer callers a listening ear, support and advice in complete confidence.