Christi Friesen has learned to recognize signs that she’s heading into a spiral of negative thinking — and it usually happens when she’s pulling 18-hour days on the tractor on her Peace River farm in Alberta.
“When you’re out in the boondocks, your closest neighbour is a half-mile away and you’re working alone and you’re exhausted, it’s easy to fall into a negative mindset,” Friesen says. “Your optimism drops, you don’t have the energy to be positive. It’s easy to feel like you’re alone.”
Friesen, who farms 4,000 acres with her husband and two young children, lost her brother to suicide resulting from mental illness a few years ago. In an article in the Globe and Mail last year, she talked about her own battles with depression.
These days, Friesen has learned to manage her health. Part of that management involves paying attention when aloneness starts to feel like loneliness.
For Friesen, loneliness is a warning sign. “For me, loneliness was a precursor to a lot of things. It’s kind of a sign that something more troubling is going to come down the line unless there’s a change,” she says.
In Canada, feelings of isolation on the farm are rooted in reality; according to Stats Canada, rural populations are on a slow decline. In 2011, fewer than one in five (18.9 per cent) Canadians lived in rural areas. Significantly, only 17 per cent of people living in rural areas were young people (15 to 29).
As farm sizes increase and communities shrink, young farmers have fewer social opportunities — and, often, longer hours and greater stress — than they used to.
Psychologists say farmers who don’t have enough help on the farm are often the most prone to overwork, which comes with significant social costs. If they’re married, their spouses might feel neglected; if they’re single, they might feel like they don’t have time to socialize.
Young mothers on the farm are also vulnerable to loneliness, Friesen says. “When I brought my son home it was very overwhelming,” she says. “At the time I couldn’t even imagine adding in farming stresses and being home all day alone with the kid, and everything else that goes with that.”
Len Davies, an Ontario family business continuity planner, says feelings of neglect or loneliness can also arise when farm couples have different ideas of commitment to the farm. Davies says that for farm couples, the number one risk factor for loneliness is mismatched priorities.
“If you go to the farm and for both the husband and wife the farm means everything to them, that’s one thing,” he says. “But if they have different values and visions, then it’s hard for one of them to understand why the other person is devoting everything to the farm.” The spouse at home isn’t alone, per se, but they might feel like they are.
Addressing the social cost
It’s a reality that choosing the farming life means accepting potential social costs and learning to live well in relative isolation. But farmer and writer Toban Dyck believes Canadian farmers have historically valued attitudes of independence and self-reliance, as well as the ability to troubleshoot their own problems.
This is part of the reason farmers can still be reluctant to talk openly about loneliness or more serious mental health issues, even when they become overwhelming.
In fact, farmers are among the most vulnerable populations in Canada when it comes to risk factors for mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
A national survey of farmers conducted by University of Guelph researcher Andria Jones-Bitton and published online in June shows that farmers are at higher risk than the general population for anxiety and depression. Two-thirds of survey respondents had high Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) scores, indicating psychological distress. Notably, females were at higher risk than males for anxiety and depression.
Isolation does not automatically mean all farmers will feel lonely. Every farmer is different, with different levels of tolerance to feelings of isolation or loneliness.
Adelle Stewart is executive director of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a non-profit focused on mental health in agriculture that launched in 2018.
Stewart says every case is completely individual and not all farmers find remoteness stressful. “There are different levels of resilience. I could spend five days a week alone and not have that affect me. But it is a risk factor, that remoteness, that inaccessibility to resources, camaraderie and community, and for some people it could lead to problems.”
2019 was such a stressful year for Canadian farmers that Stewart says stress is overwhelming that “loneliness factor” for many producers.
“But again, they do go hand-in-hand, because if farmers don’t have people to talk to or to vent that stress, aloneness can become loneliness,” she says.
Thanks in part to Do More Agriculture and Jones-Bitton’s research, mental health awareness is growing in rural communities.
In partnership with FCC, Do More Agriculture offers mental health first aid and literacy workshops across Canada. Stewart says participants are individuals from farming areas.
“We’re giving them training and confidence to have conversations with people who are struggling, and the ability to find and connect them to resources,” she says. The program, which is offered at no cost, trained more than 200 people last year and aims to double that figure in 2020.
“Your world gets small”
Toban Dyck says loneliness is something he and his wife, Jamie, talk about all the time.
“Every winter in January or February, whenever we get severe weather and high winds, my driveway’s half a mile long and it can seem like the middle of nowhere and you feel vulnerable, both geographically and otherwise. Your world gets small,” he says.
Dyck’s writing often tackles tough questions in farm life, including mental health on the farm. For him, writing is both “a job and therapy,” a way to deal with both positive and negative experiences on the farm.
He believes mental health in agriculture is “on everyone’s minds,” but feelings of isolation and loneliness can creep up on farmers when they’re unused to watching for signs of stress.
“Farmers have a phenomenal amount of stress,” he says. “I draw an income off the farm, so my farm-related stress levels would be low compared to others. I can only imagine what others must feel when they don’t have income from other sources and they’re completely reliant on the farm.
“I just encourage farmers to talk to someone. If they have a close friend they can talk to, that’s amazing. Or call these help lines and just chat. These things are incredibly helpful. I also advocate for everybody to see a counselor. Why not? Many plans cover it,” he says.
Social media can also be a tool for farmers looking for support, although apps like Twitter and Facebook can be a “double-edged sword.”
“Social media has two sides. It could become a way of saying, ‘Okay, I can connect with some friends,’ but the problem is that it’s not like being with people. It could be a compensation that will give you more trouble later if you become addicted,” says farm psychologist Pierrette Desrosiers.
Loneliness can lead people to compensate for what they feel they lack by misusing substances like alcohol or over-relying on social media, Desrosiers says. The only way out of a negative cycle is to break it, and for farmers, this sometimes means getting off the farm.
Desrosiers recommends taking a class and learning a new skill or joining a sports team.
“Loneliness can become a kind of habit when you don’t invest in other parts of your life. You have to go outside, and it will cost you a bit of time and money, but you have to do something to break that cycle,” she says.
For Christi Friesen, social media represents a way to connect with other farmers around shared experiences and passions, and to support each other during tough seasons. “I see a lot of banding together, and farmers educating each other about glyphosate and GMOs, trying to educate each other, talking about equipment issues or questions about intercropping,” she says.
But during long hours on the tractor, Friesen’s biggest support is herself. She’s learned that if she keeps up her water intake and brings a playlist along for the ride, she’s less prone to negative thinking.
“Anytime I catch myself thinking negatively, I make an effort to replace that negative thought with a positive thought. When I catch myself starting to fall down a rabbit hole, I go, ‘Stop, stop. You’re combining, you’re making money, you’re getting your crop off. Try to be grateful for the progress you’re making.’”