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How to Protect the Mental Health of Farmers

Creating online spaces to connect and teaching mental health professionals about the realities of agriculture will go a long way, say advocates.

Michelle Gamage 4 Dec 2023The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is The Tyee’s health reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

It’s been a tough couple years for farmers.

There’s been soaring temperatures, fuel and fertilizer prices, a punishing drought, isolation due to the pandemic, outbreaks of avian flu, smoky skies and rolling evacuation orders due to wildfires.

During the peak of wildfire season the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Food said there were 175 agricultural properties under evacuation order or alert.

But you’ll rarely hear a farmer complain, says Megz Reynolds, executive director of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a charity that focuses on the mental health of farmers in Canada.

“Farming is a very stoic industry. We’re tough. There’s the saying ‘cowboy up’ for a reason,” Reynolds says. “Just last week someone was telling me how their grandpa used to say ‘don’t cry because crying won’t fix anything,” she adds.

But that doesn’t mean farmers aren’t suffering.

According to research from the University of Guelph, one in four Canadian farmers said in 2021 that they’d thought about suicide in the past 12 months and more than three-quarters reported moderate to high stress levels. Women fared worse than men in every measurement of mental health except when it came to drinking.

Farmers have a suicide ideation rate twice as high as the general population, says Andria Jones, the study’s lead author and a professor at the University of Guelph. Jones says she plans to survey farmers about their mental health every five years. Her previous research, conducted from 2015 to 2016, also found higher than average levels of mental health issues such as stress.

The latest survey was taken during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and various lockdown initiatives could have impacted the mental health of farmers, but other stressors like climate change means they’re likely still struggling today, Jones says.

Jones said she wasn’t aware of any other organization in Canada recording the mental health of farmers or suicide rates amongst agricultural workers.

The B.C. Ministry of Health and BC Coroners Service told The Tyee they do not record information on a person’s occupation when they die by suicide, so the suicide rate for farmers in B.C. isn’t known.

Reynolds, who has spent the last year and a half talking with farmers across the country, says there’s a lot of stigma that prevents people from reaching out for help when they need it.

Internalized stigma makes farmers think they shouldn’t ask for help and external stigma makes them worry a neighbour will recognize their truck if they park at a mental health outreach centre in their small town, Reynolds says.

Reynolds used to work as a grain farmer in Saskatchewan.

When she started sharing her experiences of isolation and burnout on social media, she was surprised to hear she wasn’t alone: farmers across the world responded to her posts and told her they’d been where she was, she wasn’t alone, and she was going to be OK.

“That can help more than people know,” she says.

Since then Reynolds has been working to reduce the barriers surrounding farmers so they can better access mental health supports when needed.

To do that, the Do More Agriculture Foundation launched AgTalk this June.

AgTalk is an online message board, accessible through Do More Agriculture’s website, where farmers from across Canada can anonymously post about their thoughts, feelings, hardships and concerns — a bit like Reddit but everyone has agricultural experience. The message boards are monitored by mental health clinicians who can directly message a poster if they display red flags, for example talking about self-harm or hopelessness.

You don’t need to be suffering to sign up, Reynolds says. In fact, she says, all farmers, ranchers and producers are encouraged to sign up regardless of where they’re at. Then people can read what others have posted and chime in if they’d like to offer support or share their own experiences.

Some people post about struggling with depression and living with an extremely unsupportive mother-in-law. Others talk about the never-ending workload, isolation and feuding with their co-workers, who can be farm hands or family members.

All posts get responded to, often with community members sharing similar experiences or offering advice or kind words.

The community is still growing but already some common themes are emerging.

Reynolds says loss due to death or suicide, financial challenges, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse come up frequently.

Other themes include the “constants” of farming, she says. The weather, land commodity, rising costs, finances, living where you work and working with your family are common stressors.

Between 96 and 98 per cent of farms in Canada are family-owned, which can add pressure because farmers want to preserve their family legacy, Reynolds says.

To help farmers feel more comfortable asking for help, Chris Schultz, a fourth-generation grain farmer and a mental health ambassador for the Do More Agriculture Foundation, advocates for daily “Vitamin C times three.”

That’s communicate, connect and construct, he says, speaking to The Tyee from his kitchen in Saskatchewan.

Communicating means speaking about your thoughts, concerns and feelings out loud. You can talk to your dog or your best friend, it’s just important to get that release and not hold everything inside you, he says.

Connecting means accessing mental health supports. This could include speaking with a psychologist, your family doctor or even local pastor, he says.

Finally, constructing refers to the work you need to do to get past certain stages of your life. “You can achieve happiness and get that behind you,” Schultz says.

A farmer for 40 years, Schultz says he didn’t know much about mental health until his wife was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in 2018.

Four weeks later “she chose to say goodbye to the world,” he says.

Following her death, Schultz learned everything he could about mental health.

“I had to learn more and find out for my own satisfaction for the ‘why,’” he says. “There’s always a ‘why’ with every suicide.”

This led him to become a mental health ambassador for the Do More Agriculture Foundation, where he speaks about his experience, regularly checks in with AgTalk and is working on putting together a mental health workshop in his community.

The stresses farmers face are immense, he says. “It’s a nice job but can turn ugly pretty quick.”

The planting season starts in May and features regular 12 to 16 hour days until harvest season in September. A machine breakdown can set your schedule way back, Schultz says, and “there’s only a certain number of days to get the job done.”

Because of these demands, it can be easy to put off certain things indefinitely, like taking a night off or driving several hours to the closest town to talk to someone about your mental health, he says.

That’s why he’d like to see the government create mobile health clinics, which could bring mental health professionals to smaller communities on regular days of the week or month to shorten the distance farmers have to drive to get help, he says.

Around the same time AgTalk was launched, the B.C.-based association called AgSafe began offering mental health resources and free third-party counselling for all members of the B.C. agricultural community by counsellors who know about farming, growing and ranching. The government is also working on developing a suicide prevention initiative in collaboration with AgSafe and the Canadian Mental Health Association of BC.

Jones says the Canadian Centre for Agricultural Wellbeing is creating a national hotline to provide counselling for farmers across the country, and working to train mental health professionals about the realities of agricultural work where, for example, a farmer isn’t able to take two weeks off to rest and recover when their mental health is low.

Reynolds advocates for everyone to regularly check in with their own mental well-being: are you holding extra tension in your shoulders, your jaw? Is it possible to take a small break? Can you turn off social media notifications?

“Understand what you need to do to take care of yourself day to day,” she says.

Even though farmers’ mental health may be suffering, they still take a lot of pride in their work, Jones says. Burnout is assessed by exhaustion, cynicism and a sense of low personal accomplishment. Farmers tend to be exhausted and cynical, but still report being able to do their jobs well, she says.

Though she’s not entirely sure why this is, Jones thinks it could be that despite everything the world is throwing at them, farmers still find a deep sense of purpose and meaning in their work.  [Tyee]

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