In the midst of a global pandemic, mental health has never become such an important priority as it has this year. While it is hard enough for those living in urban areas, rural environments present another set of challenges. In North Yorkshire, for example, some areas have fewer than 50 people per km², meaning that nearly 17% of the county’s population live in near isolation on a daily basis.
Mobile connectivity is scarce too, meaning some rural communities have not been able to access crucial services. Covid-19 that has deeply and irrevocably destabilised our lives, meaning that communities will be less engaged in social interactions.
In a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, 5G could help solve social isolation. The Mobile Access North Yorkshire (MANY) project lies at the heart of this change. This ambitious initiative is one of seven rural R&D projects across the UK, and part of the Rural Connected Communities (RCC), funded by the 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). MANY aims to bring 5G connectivity to rural communities to help them flourish – socially and economically – and have a positive impact on the mental health of local residents.
Tackling social isolation using technology
Using 5G wireless broadband and mobile data, residents will be able to take advantage of a host of new experiences and new ways to reach each other – and the outside world. A North Yorkshire County Council initiative undertaken in March during the Covid-19 lockdown highlighted how the use of new technology in care homes had a significant, positive impact on the mental health of its residents.
Dawn Spare, Deputy Manager at Benkhill Lodge in Bedale, North Yorkshire said:
“Having tablets with connectivity has been invaluable – it is good for the resident’s mental health and stops them feeling isolated.”
Ultra-high-speed broadband gives people the chance to see friends and family via Wi-Fi calling apps, but it can also offer the opportunity to join a greater variety of online to more vulnerable users, for example in care homes. This could include virtual games such as Bridge or book and film clubs, increasing the contact a person has on a day-to-day basis and meeting like-minded people.
Outside the home, 5G mobile data gives lone workers the chance to connect, especially in the farming sector. 5G can accommodate and process much larger amounts of data and, as a result, it can offer more power to connect via calls or other platforms whilst working outdoors. The National Farmers Union and the Farm Safety Foundation #MindYourHead campaign highlights how many jobs in this sector can leave workers feeling isolated. To tackle this issue, the MANY project will explore if, and how, 5G mobile data can help drive automated farming equipment, causing farmers to spend less time on their own.
The project is also keen to address the physical barriers that residents face on a day to day basis to reduce loneliness and isolation through 5G. From routine GP or hospital visits conducted via video calls, to flood and infrastructure monitoring in real time so that Council Highways teams can react quickly. North Yorkshire often has high levels of rain and flooding which can result in communities becoming cut off when vital infrastructure is destroyed. In rural areas where social interactions can be easily disrupted, with seamless connectivity, 5G can help address those challenges.
As part of the wider discussion surrounding Mental Health in England, in 2018 the Government set out its Loneliness Strategy to tackle the stigma of loneliness and promote the importance of social connections. From this, the #LetsTalkLoneliness campaign was born, to encourage everyone to start the conversation and make sure Mental Health was at the top of the social agenda.
Despite these potentially life-changing solutions, other issues still persist. According to the North Yorkshire Wellbeing and Mental Health Strategy, 2015-2020, the trend of young people moving away to urban centres has further implications for the mental health of those remaining and this is another issue that the MANY project is keen to explore going forward.