Public criticism affects farmers’ mental health

It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation over food without hearing phrases such as free range, humanely raised, grass fed, non-genetically modified and antibiotic free.

The words are thrown about casually at restaurants or at the dinner table, but there is an underlying and sinister message to the words: some farmers are doing it right and some are doing it wrong.

Many Canadian farmers may feel they are the someone who is doing it wrong.

“I can appreciate the frustrations that farmers might be feeling if they’re feeling scrutinized by people who (don’t) know a lot about agriculture,” said Andria Jones-Bitton, professor in population medicine at the University of Guelph.

Jones-Bitton was in Winnipeg in late September for the One Welfare Conference, which focused on the intersection between human health and animal welfare.

Combining the fields into one conference is logical because the two are highly related, she said.

“We historically have been kind of siloed. We look at human health. We look at animal health,” she said.

“It’s obvious those things are connected. If humans are struggling, it’s very likely their pet or their livestock may also be struggling.”

Jones-Bitton has determined that many Canadian farmers are struggling with mental health issues. In an online survey conducted last fall and winter, more than 1,100 producers reported higher levels of stress and anxiety than other Canadians.

About 45 percent of respondents said they had high levels of stress and 35 percent reported depression.

Jones-Bitton was surprised that farmers, by stereotype self-reliant and stoic, were willing to share their stories and challenges.

“We had, surprisingly, a lot of open ended comments,” she said, which is the section at the bottom of a survey where someone can share additional information.

“On most surveys those boxes get left empty. But numerous, hundreds of producers, shared (comments)…. I’ve been astounded by the wide variety of people that have reached out … farmers calling me to say I’ve struggled with this.”

Jones-Bitton hasn’t analyzed all the open comments, but there is evidence that public criticism is affecting the mental health of farmers.

“I do recall that increasing regulations coming up, feeling like you’re being pulled into multiple directions,” she said during a coffee break at the Winnipeg conference.

“That was something we did see reflected in the comments…. Certainly, a sense of (increasing) public scrutiny.”

Mark McCutcheon, who operates Teal’s Meats and has a small farm near Waterford, Ont., hears the foodie buzzwords every day because he operates a retail butcher shop. The comments may not damage his mental health, but they can be exhausting.

“The thing we spend the most time on is that people (customers) hear catch phrases: grass fed, grain fed, antibiotic free,” he said.

“(We’re) trying to educate people (on this).”

It’s highly unlikely that Jones-Bitton will be able to remove misconceptions and simplified notions from the food industry, but she wants to help producers who are suffering from the mental health strains of farming.

She plans to spend the next couple of months studying the open-ended responses and other data in the surveys.

“We’re now going to work on some of the statistical analysis,” she said.

“Look to see (if) we see higher prevalence of (mental health issues) in certain provinces or certain sectors (of agriculture).”

She plans to publish a paper on the survey next year. Ultimately, the goal is to work with producers, mental health professionals and industry representatives to develop mental health literacy training for farmers.

The program would train people to recognize and respond to mental distress and intervene before the health of humans or livestock is compromised.

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