For several years, Wayne Black couldn’t see what was happening. He drove himself to be better as a farmer and then, when he became a sales manager at a central Ontario farm input dealership, he was always striving for the highest results for his customers. But early in 2018, he began to notice that he wasn’t eating or sleeping well, and that he was quick on the defensive and easily agitated. He thoughts would race too, sometimes seemingly out of control.
Then in September, someone pointed out his physical appearance. Black compared how he looked then to the previous March; the results were startling.
It was then that he began piecing things together, talking to different people — including his doctor — who diagnosed his condition as anxiety disorder, and prescribed sick leave away from his job.
His doctor had prescribed a regimen of medications, Black was trying to eat better, and he focused on getting good sleep every night. Even so, he began slipping back.
Early in 2019, Black felt himself returning to the “old ways” of pushing his limits, staying up late and not walking away from the desk at regular intervals.
“The medication does help, but it’s not a long-term solution,” says Black. “The long-term solution is that I need to learn how to manage my lifestyle and my thoughts, and manage my interaction with situations so that I don’t need the medication. But the more you drive yourself, the more you push yourself, the more you need to have the better sleep patterns, the better nutrition and the better work-life balance. And that’s where I failed myself.”
Finding the balance
For anyone with anxiety disorders, depression or burnout, the hardest part of the road back can be dealing with the lifestyle that contributed to the difficulty in the first place.
Those routines and behaviours can be the trigger that fire the illness’s development, yet at the same time, they can also be a source of comfort, like an old pair of jeans. And no matter how many friends or colleagues are there for support, and no matter how loving or compassionate family members might be, unless the individual sees a better life for themselves, there’s often nothing anyone can do to alter that trajectory.
For Black, the struggle from first diagnosis to today has included conversations with colleagues and friends, including some who acknowledge their own struggles with feelings of helplessness or being overwhelmed.
Too often, that kind of support just isn’t there. Sufferers don’t reach out, and friends are uncertain what to do, not realizing they must reach in. Well-intentioned public service announcements often place the onus for professional help on an individual who may not be able to help themselves. “If you need help, call your doctor.” Or “If you have thoughts of suicide, get help!”
Black stresses that individuals suffering from depression or anxiety disorders may not be in a mindset to say, “Yes, I can reach out!” Often, they’ve retreated too far inside of themselves to do that.
Telling someone, “If you’re having trouble, call me: I’ll be there” is well-meaning but ultimately leaves the issue unresolved, almost releasing the person making the offer from any further involvement.
“That’s the one thing I emphasize to people: if you know someone who’s having trouble, you reach out to them instead of waiting for them to call you,” says Black. “Call them randomly and because you’re genuinely concerned. I want to say that through this whole process, you really find out who your friends are, and I will say that I grew closer to my immediate family because they understood it and understand it — and they recognized it long before I did.”
Unfortunately, he’s also encountered some who are too rigid, who believe Black owes them an explanation for his absence or that he just took a two-week vacation at the end of summer. What makes that all the more difficult to deal with is that many of them farm in his immediate area.
Glimpses of progress
Kim Keller has been buoyed by what she’s witnessed since early 2018. That’s when she joined with co-worker Himanshu Singh along with Lesley Kelly and Kirk Muyres to form Do More Ag, as much a labour of love as it is a necessity considering all four travel to various locations across the country, over and above their full-time occupations.
“It’s important that we do recognize how far we’ve come in such a short period of time, because that gives us all a lot of hope,” says Keller, who farms outside of Melfort, Sask. “At the same time, we need to look at what the next steps are and ask, what does the next year look like?”
Keller believes few people understand what mental health is, or that good health has physical, mental, emotional and social components. If a greater awareness of overall health could be nurtured, resources could be developed to be proactive rather than reactive.
The progress with Do More Ag has been encouraging and Keller maintains that some of the statistics — like the fact that 40 per cent of farmers would find it tough to seek help because of what others would think — will look different a year from now.
“I’ll bet if that survey were done this year, that number would be different because we’ve had so many farmers and people within the industry stand up and say, ‘I live with a mental illness, I take medication, I get help and I take care of myself,’” she says. “Many of those who have been the messenger have conceded that it was hard and it was frightening, but they’ve made the conscious choice to deal with it instead of suffering in silence.”
Plus, says Keller, it’s not just farmers who are struggling. Everyone in the agri-food sphere lives with the potential of mental illness.
“I think we’re on the right track,” says Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, associate professor of epidemiology in the department of population medicine at University of Guelph. “More people in agriculture are talking about mental health, and agricultural organizations are adding it to their meeting agendas, people are writing about it on blogs, ag newsletters and magazines and on Twitter.”
Do More Ag is regularly engaging with people in agriculture and sharing their stories too, notes Jones-Bitton, all of which is wonderful to see and will help dispel the stigma associated with mental illness. She also maintains the need for a national strategy on farmer mental health in Canada.
“We need a national centre or national network so we can have a co-ordinated effort across the country, to share resources and avoid duplication,” says Jones-Bitton. “We need development of agriculture-specific resources to help support farmers who are struggling and to help those who are caring for them. We also need more resources to help farmers build their resilience. We’re not able to eliminate the stresses that farmers experience but we can help them build their resilience and model resilience for their children so they can better thrive in the face of those stresses.”
Funding a big issue
Deborah Vanberkel, a registered psychotherapist who provides counselling, workshops, and speaking sessions from her office in Napanee, Ont., sees the struggle with rural access to care.
“When I was trying to get somebody access to different resources, it was easy in urban areas — we could get them connected at the drop of a hat,” says Vanberkel, who also farms with her husband. “There are wait times but you can get people connected. In the rural areas, there are no resources, so you’re the resource and you hope that you’re able to provide what they’re seeking at that moment.”
She always acknowledges the stressful nature of farming and how farmers are seeing added stresses piled on top of their normal workloads. What can alleviate some of that stress is knowing what anxiety and stress are, which creates understanding. If a person can recognize that in themselves or if a partner or spouse or friends can notice it, it can ease the stigma associated with mental illness and encourage someone to seek help. And it can work both ways, perhaps with someone outside of the family.
“Let’s say you notice your neighbour might not be keeping the farm the way they used to or they’re not picking up the mail or going to church — check in on them,” says Vanberkel. Reach out, she says. Be non-judgmental, and focus on providing an opportunity to discuss things, and maybe find a course of action.
More reasons for optimism
There are also efforts in Vanberkel’s area via the Farmer Wellness Program that began in February 2019 as a joint effort by Vanberkel and the Lennox and Addington Federation of Agriculture. It offers accessible mental health services to the ag community, much like an employee assistance program, and is modelled on a program in Prince Edward Island.
A similar initiative — dubbed “In The Know” — was implemented late in 2018 by Jones-Bitton and Briana Hagen, a PhD candidate in the department of population medicine at University of Guelph, in conjunction with a team of stakeholders from agriculture, social work and mental health. In The Know is a mental health literacy program to help inform farmers and people who work with farmers on issues including depression and anxiety disorders. They also learn how to cope with the enormous stress of operating a farm with a focus on healthy living and safe mental health conversations.
“If we can give people the tools to recognize when their neighbour, friend, partner — whoever — might be experiencing these symptoms and that maybe it’s time to have a conversation about this, that can only help,” says Hagen. “We need to give them the tools to be able to open up a conversation.”
On the other end, Hagen emphasizes the need to be able to conduct the research to ensure evidenced-based programs are developed to help people and provide needed access, which are also readily available to farmers. Ultimately, the goal would be to improve the outcomes over and above talking about them. She notes that in farming populations, something developed for the general population might not work; the solutions must be farm-specific in order to work with a farming demographic.
“There’s a way and there’s a will,” says Hagen. “It’s just a matter of getting those things to work together and get the money to do it.”