I saw last week that Kirkwall had been voted the UK’s most welcoming destination by an online accommodation site. Having stayed several times over the past couple of years, I can see how Kirkwall’s hotels and guesthouses, shops, eating places and the folk themselves put the town on the map.
Of course, Orkney is no stranger to awards of this kind, and rightly so, as a key tourist spot in this beautiful Highlands and Islands region that I am proud to represent.
Folk hear about the beautiful scenery that we have, and how Orkney or Inverness are the happiest places to live, and they imagine a peaceful, joyful life free of stress and sadness. I love the islands, Ross-shire, and Inverness, but suicide rates in the Highlands, Orkney and the Western Isles are the highest in the country.
And that was a point I was able to make at Holyrood last week during a Member’s Debate on male suicide led by my SNP colleague Jim Fairlie.
Male-dominated jobs such as farming, fishing and forestry, which are important sectors in the Highlands and Islands, also have some of the highest suicide rates. Last year, Change Mental Health shared with me a survey that showed that four-fifths of farmers under the age of 40 consider mental health to be the biggest hidden problem facing the agricultural community.
Perception might only go so far, but I worry about what the flashy tourism lines say to those who are suffering. A quiet view of a loch and the feeling of being alone in nature can be wonderfully relieving for someone who is content. When they are depressed, it can be isolating to the point of being deadly. When someone sees news articles claiming that the area that they live in is the happiest place to live, and that does not match up with their emotions, they can feel as though they are wrong. They might think “Well, if I’m here, and I’m unhappy, I won’t ever be happy anywhere”.
Another issue that Jim Fairlie’s motion highlighted was the links between deprivation and mental illness and suicide.
However, the problem with accurately measuring rural deprivation in Orkney and across the Highlands and Islands in a way that allows us to successfully compare it with that in urban areas has never been solved. We know that there are folk in really difficult situations living in areas that the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation will tell us are doing quite well. Poverty is harder to see, and perhaps easier to ignore, in sparsely populated areas. Constituents tell me constantly that they are more likely to try to keep it quiet in communities where everyone likes to know everyone else’s business.
We have to do more to tackle male suicide rates, but it is clear that the problems and solutions will be different in rural and island communities. I look forward to continuing to work towards finding the right solutions for folk in this area.
This is a regular column by SNP MSP Emma Roddick. All Highlands and Islands MSPs have been offered the same space in The Orkney News to share their views.
That tends to happen when there’s a paucity in mental health services, psychiatrists etc.