Rural Support Awarded Brendan Bonner Prize for Innovation On Helplines Awareness Day

Helplines NI, a network of telephone and online support services funded by the Public Health Agency has awarded the Rural Support Helpline its Brendan Bonner Award for Innovation, at its eighth annual Helplines Awareness Day on March 20th. This event aimed to spotlight the crucial services provided by helplines across Northern Ireland, underscored by the nearly 600,000 calls made to Helplines NI’s 40 members in 2023.

Established in 2020 to honour Brendan Bonner's dedication to helpline advocacy, the award recognises outstanding innovation within member helplines. Known for providing vital assistance to farming families across Northern Ireland, Rural Support took home the prestigious award for its innovative "Boots on the Ground" training course.

The initiative which addresses a growing need for mental health support within the agricultural sector, provides crucial tools and knowledge to recognise and address mental health concerns effectively. Since its inception, the course has trained over 800 stakeholders, including employees from organisations such as DAERA and CAFRE, resulting in a 15 per cent increase in referrals to the support line. Additionally, the course has expanded its reach beyond traditional stakeholders, engaging organisations such as Power NI, Ulster Bank and Danske Bank.

Kevin Doherty, Chief Executive at Rural Support said: “We are delighted to be awarded the Brendan Bonner Award for Innovation in recognition of our unwavering commitment to serving the farming community. The 'Boots on the Ground' training course represents a pioneering approach to mental health support within the agricultural sector and the overwhelming response and impact of this initiative, as evidenced by the significant increase in referrals to our support line, validates the importance and relevance of our work.”

Deloitte recently released its ‘State of State 2024’ report which revealed that public worries about health and social care have grown since 2023, largely fuelled by long NHS waiting lists and an inability to access services.

Kevin emphasised the critical role of helpline services in the current climate, noting that they serve as a lifeline for many individuals. She said, “People are facing a multitude of issues, many arising because of the harsh economic climate. Our public sector isn’t always able to provide everyone in need with support, so helplines often fill an important gap ensuring that people have somewhere to turn to feel heard”.

Clodagh Crowe Co-Chair of Helplines NI and Head of Development and Strategic Engagement at Rural Support said “Helplines NI members provide a listening ear and emotional support, but also practical advice, and they signpost to other organisations. They do incredible work, but it should be noted that they too are feeling the pressure with operational costs on the rise, and funding streams negatively impacted by ongoing cuts and fundraising challenges. This Helplines Awareness Day, it’s crucial we put a spotlight on telephone helpline services so that they are recognised for the important contribution they make to Northern Ireland’s health and social care landscape.”

In recognition of the event's significance, Deputy Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Robbie Butler MLA, participated in a panel discussion at The Duncairn, Belfast, addressing the challenges faced by the helpline sector and the importance of acknowledging the growing complexities faced by households across Northern Ireland.

He said, “It’s very important we shine a light on our telephone support services ahead of and on Helplines Awareness Day, to recognise the important role helplines play in Northern Ireland, especially as people face increasingly complex emotional, physical and financial challenges. The Helplines NI network is a wonderful example of collaboration at its best, and I’m pleased that the network continues to grow and now has 40 members, all working together to help people get the support they need, when they need it. I commend these organisations for taking more than half a million calls last year – calls that can often bring marked change to a person’s life.”

Helplines NI not only advocates for an improved landscape for helpline services, but it also improves efficiencies for people in need. Member organisations which include NSPCC Parenting Focus, Advice NI and Samaritans, are all briefed on the services offered by each other. If a person calls a helpline that may not be best suited to their needs, they are efficiently directed to the most-appropriate service reducing the amount of time they wait for help.

Claire O’Prey, Co-Chair at Helplines NI and Interim Assistant Service Manager at Lifeline, highlighted how important it is that people in need are encouraged to seek support. She said, “Nobody should suffer in silence. Everyone will need advice and support at some point in their lives - the broad range of issues our members can help with proves that, as does the near 600,000 calls made to them last year. This Helplines Awareness Day will serve as an important reminder to people that telephone support services are available, and people are trained to listen and provide the right advice. If you’re in need, you can visit our website where you will find the right number where you can receive support for the challenge you’re facing.”

For a full list of members, and for more information visit