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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Comments

  • Stephen Daniels

    Great article,long hours obviously contributing to his stress load but those kind of hours arn’t that uncommon among farmers.And that would be one major reason young people do not see agriculture as a career choice.40 hour week and three to four week paid vacation careers are much more attractive.Think this rancher should seriously think about options to reduce his workload or his youth will be gone and he can’t get it back.

  • Harold

    What I see is a committee of the powerless and confused baiting the public to gather cherry picked evidence that supports their talking points of their perceived victim-hood. In the background, it is merely a social engineering project designed to confuse the public into accepting their illusionary terms of a mental illness. The public’s acceptance of the illusion will lead to more farm credit handouts and more government tax payer social programs, and more government tax payer funding to the university all of which directly benefit the help, but not the farmer. They are not clearing any misconceptions; they are the masters of misconception and the ability to control others brings them from nobody important to a – somebody important status. They are only a rabbit giving birth to another rabbit.
    The Agriculture Producers Association and Farm Credit Canada are a “mental health panel” and “mental health first aid”? Give me a break, I’m not that stupid.
    They have the object by name only, but do not have the knowledge of what the object truly is. They name the brain, but have no recipe to create one. They name stress, but lack the knowledge of how the body in nature is even capable of creating the condition. They name stress and lack in the knowledge to conceder its value. They name depression without a recipe to create depression, and haven’t a clue of what oppression is to understand differences.
    A person who elects a position of isolation is not suffering from a brain disorder when isolated, he is suffering from a poor choice and if not shouldered or accepted he will suffer until he changes the circumstance. Stress hastens the change and to have stress you need an intelligent and legitimate awareness. The longer in idle sat the deeper in stress. Stress creates a forward motion until circumstance aligns with conscience. Stress is a necessary tool of life and is neither an enemy nor a brain disorder. The other claims of the panel are just a bogus.
    Of course, this is neither their desire nor their panel, it is a panel to make the public believe that they and the government are medicate for relief. They are the implanted “lab coats” of meaningless indoctrination that meets the hidden agenda.

    • Stephen Daniels

      Good god nobody can make sense of that nonsense could you just cut to the chase?In fifty words or less.

      • Harold

        You’ve implied that you are speaking for everybody; are you the consensuses of everybody? …
        How could I possibly know what you will understand or will not understand? How can you possibly know what other’s can understand? You cannot make sense out of what was written, so I agree with you, the proper term to use is the word “nonsense”. Bravo 100%. How will I know what “chase” and what “fifty words” to use from my vocabulary if you do not ask me a directed question to gain clarity? Oops! (communication skills 101)
        … My opinion differs from yours; so what? I could have said just two words, but I chose all of these words instead.

        • Happy Farmer

          In this instance(and quite a few more), I agree with Stephens 50 words or less philosophy.
          An old quote with references to dazzle and baffle comes to mind. Of course this applies to all of us.

          • richard

            Perhaps brevity is not his forte…….but I would go to the wall to defend his right to speak……..we don’t have to read it do we? (23 words including my name)

          • Harold

            Brevity and forte are not the issue; my entire comment was a brief and there are those who would know this. Brevity is subjective to an audience and not determined by word count, and word count is left to the discretion of the speaker, and editing is at the speaker’s pleasure to do so. (the 23 words you chose for example) Moreover, they did not in any way interfere with my freedom of speech; for that they are powerless and likely hate the feeling. They’re merely showing a deaf ear, and if they had anything to teach, or had any curiosity, they would have had both ears and responded in kind. Wired differently, I believe that if I were to limit anyone’s speech, then I in the same moment limit myself; I know that they are at their limits and I accept it.
            That being said, you clearly have deep seated feelings about being heard fully when you speak and the freedom that you feel when it is granted, and being so, you demand (to the wall) the same speech and freedoms for others. (freedom of speech) Unlike many, you are with others a honorable man; you’re needed, and thank you. (201 words)

          • Harold

            I owe you the courtesy of a response because your comment was directed to me. I say things as I wish to – not as I am told to; It is called adulthood – so sue me! Where did you get your “50 words or less philosophy” and how can you call it a philosophy? … I have to admit that you have left me baffled by your comment, but not dazzled. Perhaps you can present to me the “dazzle” and “baffle” elements that you found that proves legitimacy. I think what you are truly saying is: if you want my opinion – you will give it to me. Further, I personally like the following adage placed into a conversation: Lead….follow….or get the hell out of the way. That being said, I will also say to you the same as what I’ve said to Stephen, plus offer to you one more thing. Take up speed reading to relieve the burden, or skip to comments that offer you pablum/insipid. (if I dismiss myself, and agree with the majority – that’s all that matters – is a diet of pablum) My opinions differ from yours, and being so, it is a fundamental of any conversation; agreement is two mouths closed. So what? There are perhaps many more who cannot comprehend the concepts that I bring forward. So what? I don’t need self-gratifications and a pat on the back for every comment I make. I seek clarity and correction, and that includes for me, and that’s all. If you have any clarity to offer to me then; LEAD…..follow….you know the rest. If you don’t like my comment then direct your comments to Stephen and you’ll gain a pat on the back.

  • old grouchy

    You know – – – I’m thinking the important point of this article is not very obvious.
    The financing aspects of a farming operation are a major stress producer for, dare I say, every farmer!
    Of course the resultant is that there will be yet another committee struck to study the phenomenon but why bother. We have draconian relationships imposed from the financing world on the farming one but of course the financiers care so deeply (that they get their whole pound of flesh). But of course these wonderful financiers understand all of their impact, why you ask – – – well they did do a BSc in ag economics right – – – that means they ‘know’ all about farming – – – right. Sorry they don’t – – – and few even know their customers. In quite a few years I have met only a very small group of financial people who worked as hard for me, or even close, as they did for their employer. Those I will never forget!!

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