Your Reading List

The hidden farm illness

Even in good times, depression takes its toll on the farm too

Only a decade ago, Gerry Friesen was a successful farmer, a commodity board director, and a member of the Manitoba Farm Mediation Board. Outwardly, he was doing just fine. Inwardly, he was battling severe depression.

“I fooled a lot of people,” Friesen says.

There has long been a stigma around depression on the farm. Now that’s changing, and Friesen is doing his part to change it. He speaks at seminars and workshops about farm depression, he’s open to talking to the media about his depression, and he writes a blog on recovering from depression.

Related Articles

Portrait of young man suffering from depression

He knows what depression feels like. He knows how difficult it was to seek help. And he wants to make that first step a little easier for other farmers.

Stress is a trigger

“We know job stress can be a huge contributor to depression, particularly in farmers and individuals who work in agricultural occupations,” says Greg Gibson, a registered clinical psychologist for Community Health Services at Brandon, Man. “In 2006, the World Health Organization cited farming as one of the most stressful occupations, and they also highlighted that job stress is a precursor to mental health problems.”

Farming is rife with risks and with dangers that are beyond the farmer’s control, starting with uncertain weather, fluctuations in markets, disease outbreaks, input costs, machinery breakdowns, and changes in government policy.

“All of these are things that farmers have little control over, but they’re kind of make-or-break factors,” says Gibson. “And they can all have a financial effect and a psychological effect, and the financial effect can affect the psychology. A lot of these factors can impact and certainly are a risk factor for burnout and depression.”

Friesen knows what stress feels like and the physical symptoms it can trigger. Some 10 years ago at a meeting, he began to experience heart palpitations.  “There was a lot of stress in my life at that time,” he says, “issues with Manitoba Pork, my own farm issues — we had to restructure due to financial issues. It was in early 2004 that I finally did go to see a doctor.”

The doctor put him on antidepressants and an anti-anxiety medication. “I came to understand the mental health issue better than I used to,” Friesen now says.

More work isn’t the answer

Man in white sweater.

“It’s ingrained in us that if we just work harder, we’ll get rid of these problems,” Gerry Friesen
photo: Supplied

“Looking back, I now recognize — it’s ingrained in us that if we just work harder we will get rid of all these problems,” Friesen says. “So instead of seeking the right kind of help, we tend to try to work harder and work our way through the issues, whether it’s financial stress, whether it’s depression, whether it’s other stresses. That’s just the way men are wired to handle things.”

Friesen was able to hide his depression from the wider community, but his family knew that something was wrong.

“I thought at the time I was doing a really good job of hiding it from them,” Friesen says. “In 2010, I facilitated a project called Men and Depression, and at the time I actually interviewed my wife and kids to see if my depression had had an effect on them. To say it was traumatic is overstating it perhaps, but I was shocked at the response. I thought I had been hiding things from them and then realized that they had understood all too well there was something wrong with me, and the different ways they tried to cope with that.”

For his wife, Friesen discovered, it was a struggle to be married to “that depressed farmer who was trying to cope, was trying to do way more than he should have, and wasn’t dealing with the depression in the right way.”

Help and hope

For Friesen, the right way to deal with his depression has been a combination of strategies. Initially, he was on antidepressants and an anti-anxiety medication for about a year and a half. After completing that regime, and after a traumatic event in his life, he tried talk therapy but didn’t find the relief he needed. He went back on medication. It was at that time that the farm was sold. He now works in conflict resolution and stress management. Selling the farm gave him temporary relief from a lot of stress, he says.

Self-knowledge has helped as well, Friesen says. “Through the work I’ve been doing in the stress management area I’ve recognized who I am and what my trigger points are, and the fact that there are things that will drag me down.”

More from the Country Guide website: What to do if you, or someone you know, is having thoughts of self-harm

“I get depressed when I’m asked to give and I have nothing left to give,” he says. “When I’m very busy with my work, with my mediation stuff and stress management, I get to the point where I am tired and when I become tired, my defenses go down and I feel myself slipping over the edge. And then I have to be very proactive in dealing with that.”

Cognitive behavioural aids such as David Burns’s book Feeling Good have also proved extremely helpful. Burns’s book refers to the thesis of Dr. Aaron T. Beck, one of the world’s foremost authorities on mood disorders. Beck is globally recognized as the father of the cognitive therapy paraphrased below:

1. When you are depressed or anxious, you are thinking in an illogical, negative manner and you inadvertently act in a self-defeating way.

2. With a little effort you can train yourself to change your thought patterns.

3. As your painful symptoms are eliminated, you will become productive and happy again.

These aims can usually be accomplished in a relatively brief period of time, using straightforward methods.

Breaking the wall of silence

After facilitating a seminar with the Manitoba Farm Stress Line, Friesen was asked if he would talk about his own depression issues. “Never realizing the impact it would have, never realizing how difficult it would be, particularly at the beginning, but really the benefit out of all that is that people, some I’ve known for years and didn’t realize they were having mental health issues, came to me and said, ‘You know this is what I’m experiencing,’ and together we find new ways of coping and making life better for ourselves.”

These days when he talks at seminars, he often says that the number one thing that helped him was actually starting to verbalize about his depression. He tells a story from the fall of 2005.

“There was a fairly traumatic incident in my life and I remember my neighbour dropping by and he asked, ‘Are you doing OK?’ Of course my normal response in the past would have been, ‘Absolutely. I’m fine.’ But I took advantage of that question that day and I talked for probably half an hour and I spilled the beans,” Friesen says.

People don’t want to talk about their mental health because there is a pride issue, he says. “I have no problem telling someone my knee is very sore because I sprained it, but I hate telling people that I have a mental health issue. But when I did start talking about it, my neighbour said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I get that.’ And he didn’t look at me as if I had lost my marbles; it was just like, ‘Yeah, I get that. I sometimes feel that way. Can I help with anything?’”

“That kind of conversation was really freeing for me,” Friesen says.

Professional health care workers are also helpful, he says, and he warns farmers not to get discouraged if that first attempt to get help doesn’t quite work.

“My message is don’t give up. Go see another counsellor. I talk a lot about finding your support system. As much as I was hiding stuff from my wife, I now realize if I had been open and up front with her that would have been way more helpful than I could ever have imagined,” Friesen says. “There are neighbours, professionals, community mental health workers. The list just goes on and on.”

About the author

Shirley Byers's recent articles



Stories from our other publications