An isolating illness: talking about mental health

When Trewett Chaplin is stressed, he puts his head down and focuses on one task that he has to get done that day on his ranch.

At 28 years old, Chaplin takes care of 550 head of cattle and 230 head of bison on his ranch near Craik, Sask. He farms by himself and is no stranger to the stresses of agriculture.

This year’s lack of rain has drastically reduced the availability of feed for his livestock, and that means added costs that come directly off his bottom line.

Chaplin’s closest family members are two hours away and be-cause he is not originally from the Craik area, he sometimes feels isolated as he goes through his 90-hour work weeks.

“It is a pretty sheltered life. Stressful doesn’t even start to explain it,” he said in a telephone interview.

“One bad year can throw years of hard work out the window pretty quick.”

Chaplin is not alone. Many farmers feel the financial, emotional and mental stresses of the job. He said the isolation can take its toll.

“I got environmental stress with no rain, which means no feed and increased cost to purchase feed. You’re isolated all the time. I work basically 90 hours a week so I very rarely ever leave other than to get parts.”

He also said the rest of the industry isn’t always as supportive as it could be. “It’s hard to get financing as a young producer, so that doesn’t help either.”

Chaplin said working by himself causes its own problems.

“It’s not like I can take a mental health day and not work one day because it doesn’t work that way. That means I have five days of work to make up for the one day that I decided to take off,” he said.

“Working all the time, that’s stressful, too. You go on Facebook and look at pictures of all these people having fun — ‘oh jeez, that’s nice, I wish I could do some of that.’ “

He said mental health issues can threaten to take over a farmer’s life.

“Depression is a huge factor that affects you in all aspects of life and doing everything, there’s a constant struggle there, he said.

“People don’t understand depression. It has a physical aspect to it, too. The physical aspect of mental health and stress is as bad as anything because it makes everything worse.”

The Farm Stress Line in Saskatchewan, which is run by Regina-based Mobile Crisis Services, received 227 calls during the last fiscal year. Fifty-nine calls came in July.

Mobile Crisis executive director John McFaddyen said calls come from all across the province with peak times between seeding and harvest.

Callers include people with financial problems, physical health issues caused by stress, relationship problems and family stresses.

Behind much of the recent increased attention to mental health issues in agriculture are tweets sent out by Kim Keller, a farmer from Gronlid, Sask., and a co-founder of Women in Ag. She started to discuss mental health in agriculture on social media after receiving a message from an industry colleague who was, at the time, dealing with a co-worker’s suicide.

“#Ag we gotta do more. I received a message yesterday that kept me up thinking of how we do more. Farm stress is real. Suicide is real,” she tweeted June 24.

“Fellow producers, retails, input companies, grain buyers, lenders — this is all on us. We fail each other when it comes to mental health.”

What followed was a plethora of producers weighing in on the mental impacts of the job. They responded online and during a mental health in agriculture panel that Keller was moderating during the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan midterm meeting.

While some responses were of the “suck it up” variety, Keller said most expressed sentiments that went something like, “finally.”

“They were just happy they weren’t the only ones going through this, happy that someone was finally willing to talk about it,” said Keller.

The “suck it up” attitude can prevent producers from talking about their mental health challenges, said Keller, but she was happily surprised to see many producers walk to the microphone during the meeting and freely talk about their issues.

Mental health panelist Darren Howden, senior vice-president of Farm Credit Canada, saw how people opened up in front of a room of 80 people. It was not what he expected.

This year has had its share of specific regional stresses with droughts in some areas and too much moisture in others, which Howden was prepared to discuss, but the discussion during the panel went further, he said.

“This is more of an ongoing issue than I originally thought.”

Producers may be starting to reach out for help, but the industry is starting to respond as well with more and more agriculture partners wondering what they can do to help, he said.

Howden said FCC will look into how staff can better intervene when they see producers with mental health issues.

“Right now, we are referring customers to the Farm Stress Line, which is a really good resource,” he said.

“What we are looking to put into place is Mental Health First Aid in the Prairies for our managers and senior staff to at least arm them better.”

Keller said farming is unique compared to other lines of work. It has many stress points around things that producers cannot control, such as finances, weather and isolation, which are combined with long work weeks and few days off, especially during harvest and seeding seasons.

Social isolation was also discussed on the mental health panel.

Howden said the dynamics of communities have changed over the years, and producers and members of the panel see the impacts on producers.

“Today, there may not be one neighbour within five miles,” he said.

“The curling rink’s gone, the ball diamonds are gone. There’s not as much of those evening outlets.”

Without that release, producers work all day and then think about it all night, he said.

These are all factors that weigh on Chaplin with no prospects of a mental health day in sight and few opportunities to leave his farm for a break.

He has been open about his farming challenges, and Keller said reaching out and talking about it can ease the load.

Mental health challenges affect everyone, said Keller, and talking about it is the first step to taking away some of the misconceptions.

That has been the message for students at the University of Saskatchewan in initiatives staged by the students’ union during the last few years, said Fran Walley, associate dean of academics at the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.

There are no specific courses in the agriculture college that address mental health in the industry, but Walley said some professors broach the subject in the classroom.

“There is a real heightened awareness on campus and I would say in terms of our student body in the College of Ag/Bio, students are increasingly more inclined to seek out assistance. We see more students coming to us asking for assistance.”

Because of the increased emphasis on discussion and seeking help, many students are treating mental health issues the same as they would their physical health, said Walley.

Keller offers this advice for people who know someone who is struggling and reaches out: “just listen.”

“There’s immense amount of power in asking someone how they’re doing.”

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