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Down on the farm

Farming is a mental health challenge. It isn’t your fault. The numbers prove it. So maybe this is the right moment to talk about whether you’re one of the many who would benefit from some help

Every farmer knows that the sun can’t always shine. That the rain sometimes comes too early, too late, too hard, or not at all. That markets can fall, costs can jump, crops can fail, and even the best thought-through decisions can prove painfully, expensively, brutally wrong.

It isn’t easy being a farmer. No matter how resilient, self-sufficient, capable, independent and gosh-darn STRONG you are, sometimes the pressures will stack up a little too high.

Add in the isolation that many farmers work under, and it’s no surprise that farming is among the very highest stress, most mental health-sapping of occupations. And yet, strangely, the ag industry is only just now opening the door a crack to conversations about mental health.

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Between September 2015 and January 2016, University of Guelph epidemiologist and associate professor Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton surveyed more than 1,100 Canadian farmers about stress and resilience. The research findings paint a worrying picture; 45 per cent of respondents reported high stress, 38 per cent had high levels of emotional exhaustion, 43 per cent reported cynicism, and fewer than half think there is enough mental health support for the industry.

How do such numbers compare to non-farmers? It’s a little hard to know for sure, since the survey questions and analytical techniques used in different surveys can make for some apples-to-oranges comparisons. Still, in a study of non-farm employees released last year by Toronto-based HR firm Morneau Shepell, 31 per cent of respondents reported a current mental health challenge, the most common being anxiety and depression.

By contrast, a whopping 58 per cent of farmers in Jones-Bitton’s survey reported varying levels of anxiety, and 35 per cent reported depression, suggesting that Canadian farmers are significantly more likely to suffer poor mental health than their off-farm counterparts, a finding Jones-Bitton has confirmed.

The statistics are enough to make even the hardest-hearted among us sit up and take notice. But there’s one more factor shown in Jones-Bitton’s research that compounds all of the rest. According to the survey results, a third of farmers felt seeking professional help for mental health challenges could negatively stigmatize them because of what people might think.

And it’s clear that this reluctance is hurting our friends, our neighbours and our family members.

John McFadyen, executive director of Saskatchewan’s Farm Stress Line, says farmers are not reaching out for help when they should.

Since 1989, Saskatchewan has offered farmers and farm families free access to confidential crisis telephone counselling, including support, information and referral services 24 hours per day, seven days per week via its Farm Stress Line (306-757-0127). The line is run by Mobile Crisis Services, which also offers similar call-in crisis support to the City of Regina.

The City of Regina’s crisis support line, which services about 240,000 urban dwellers, received about 25,000 calls last year. During the same time period, the Farm Stress Line, which services a similar sized population, received only about 300.

“That’s not a lot of calls in my estimation,” McFadyen says. “If we were looking at what the call load from rural Saskatchewan should be, there should be 25,000 to 30,000 calls.”

“Certainly when you’re looking at stress and mental health, there is stigma and reluctance in the farm community. They just trudge along. They just keep dealing with things. But actually, they need that support. They need the opportunity to talk to someone, to get redirected. When something is ongoing and not addressed, that’s when it can become a problem.”

Melfort, Sask. farmer Kim Keller starts every presentation to farmers the same way.

“Stand up if you’ve lost someone to suicide,” she tells audiences.”

“Stand up,” she says, “if you’ve been impacted by poor mental health, suffered either by you or by someone close to you.”

“Stand up,” she says, “if you’ve been affected in some way by the stigma that surrounds mental illness.”

By the end of three questions, typically two thirds of the people in the room are on their feet.

“You can just see how surprised they are when they look around and see how common issues with mental health are in farming,” says Keller, co-founder of the Do More Agricultural Foundation, a not-for-profit that seeks to promote awareness and education about mental health.

Keller admits that she can’t offer any easy solutions for farmers struggling with mental health challenges. What she can do — and what all of agriculture must do, she says — is to work proactively towards destigmatizing mental health so that farmers facing dark times feel the right thing to do is to seek help.

In the fall of 2014, Keller received a phone call from a close friend telling her the tragic news that her neighbour — a capable, competent farmer — had died the night before by suicide.

The news rocked Keller. Called to do something tangible to try to improve the realities for other farmers facing high stress, dark thoughts and unstable mental health, she and her team at ag tech company Farm at Hand, initiated a T-shirt campaign and donated proceeds to the Farmers’ Stress Line in Saskatchewan.

Then fast-forward two and a half years to the summer of 2017. Keller received a message via Twitter from someone who was aware of the T-shirt campaign. He’d lost a farming client to suicide and hoped she could connect him with resources to help both the family and other farmers.

“Two years later, and I could still really only give him the Farmers’ Stress Line. There was nothing else. I didn’t feel I could give him anything different than I could have two years before, five years before, 10 years before. I knew mental health in farming was a huge issue and yet it was like no one was talking about it, no one was doing anything about it,” she says.

So she sent out a single Twitter message that made big waves in ag social media circles: “#Ag we gotta do more… Farm stress is real. Suicide is real.”

Response from industry came in like a landslide.

“It was just overwhelming positivity and support, with everyone agreeing that, yes, we do need to do more,” she says. “This is something we don’t talk about in agriculture.”

Keller decided that someone needed to spearhead formal, regular discussion about mental health in agriculture. So she and three colleagues co-founded the Do More Agricultural Foundation.

“Our foundation is not setting out to change the realities of farming because that’s not our place. What we want to do is help build up understanding of mental health.”

She says destigmatization is the first and most important step that agriculture must take to tackle mental illness. Second, the ag industry needs to proactively build mental health resources and then make them easily available to all farmers.

“We need to build out a community where people can get connected. While there are resources out there, we’ve identified that access is really difficult. That’s a major barrier. Our goal is not to develop resources but instead to help connect people to resources and supports.”

What does success look like for Keller and the Do More Foundation?

“I think at the end of the day success would be that we see fewer farmer deaths by suicide, that when we do a followup survey we don’t see 45 per cent of respondents feeling high stress. And that talking about mental health is not hushed, not tabooed, not awkward,” she says.

There is good news. Keller says that huge strides are already being made in normalizing conversations about mental health.

“Even in the last six months, the progress has been unbelievable. There isn’t a farm show that doesn’t have some aspect of mental health now. Most companies are including mental health as a discussion point.”

And farmers are starting to talk.

“When we do a panel at a farm show or event, people — not just one but two or three — stand up and share their stories,” she says. “I think it’s not that they don’t want to talk about it. I think it’s that they’ve never been in an environment where they CAN talk about it. All of a sudden, it’s almost like they’ve got permission. Most times there are tears in the audience and a lot of nodding heads. A lot of nodding heads.”

When it’s time to call

Physical health has an impact on every one of us. Though some enjoy better physical health than others, all of us have times when we are physically healthier and times when we are physically unwell. No one — not one single person — enjoys perfect physical health at all times.

Mental health is exactly the same. Each and every one of us goes through periods of better and poorer mental wellness. While only a very small percentage of the population will have to tackle a diagnosable mental illness, all of us will face times in life when we feel less energetic and positive, more anxious, depressed, isolated, and/or not in control. When those feelings persist and start getting in the way of your life, your work and your enjoyment of living, the problem needs to be addressed. But how?

First, open up. If you have a healthy support system, use it. Share your concerns with your family and close friends. Be frank and open with your doctor or another professional. Call a confidential crisis line if that would be of help. Often, simply talking about stressors, concerns and negative thoughts can lift much of their crushing bulk off one’s shoulders. And, others may be able to help problem-solve because they will see challenges from a different perspective.

Second: give your body what it needs. Just as it is possible to influence physical health, the choices we make throughout our daily lives can promote or harm our mental health. No matter how capable and strong you are, you will suffer decreased mental wellness if you do not meet your body’s biological needs (adequate sleep, good diet, frequent exercise, etc.), its social needs (meaningful connections with others), and its psychological needs (limiting stress, building confidence, allowing yourself recovery and relaxation time, etc.).

Third, be kind to yourself. Suffering less than perfect mental health is regularly treated as a character flaw, a cop-out, or an embarrassment. But imagine how ridiculous it would sound if society told you that your debilitating flu, your bursting appendix, or your broken leg was a sign of weakness. Your mental health is as real and immediate as your physical health. It is worth investing in and taking seriously.

Farmers are nothing if not optimistic. The simple act of placing a seed beneath a layer of soil depends on the optimistic belief that one’s investment at the growing season’s front end will pay off months or years later. And when pests or weather or markets get in the way of that plan? It’s optimism that convinces a farmer to start all over again the next season. Without “I’ll beat the odds” and “it’ll be better next year” optimism, most farmers would choose another career. If your optimism is being pushed out by worry, doubt, exhaustion, bleakness and/or hopelessness, seek help. This is not a battle you must fight on your own.

“If I could get just one single message out to farmers, it would be that you are not alone,” says Keller. “Even if you feel alone, there is an entire industry behind you and with you. Reach out.”

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