Farmers overwhelmed by stress but fail to pick up the phone

Agribition panel discusses the importance of mental health and what programs are ready to help farmers cope

Since Kim Keller posted a tweet last summer urging farmers to talk about mental health, that’s exactly what she’s been doing.

The Gronlid, Sask., farmer and co-founder of Saskatchewan Women in Agriculture has kept the conversation alive at events and on social media.

At Canadian Western Agribition, participants at the Grain Expo heard that studies have found 40 percent of farmers won’t seek help because they are afraid of the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“In Canada, we don’t have the best numbers on actual farm suicides,” she said during a panel on mental health. “We know that our American neighbours are twice as likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population.”

John McFadyen, executive director of Mobile Crisis Services, which operates Saskatchewan’s Farm Stress Line, also offered a sobering statistic.

Typically, 10 percent of the population calls his agency each year. The rural population is about 250,000 yet the Farm Stress Line receives only 300 calls a year.

He said he hoped that by continuing to talk about the issue, more farmers and rural residents will seek the help they need.

Adelle Stewart, director of operations at Bridges Health, said one reason farmers don’t call is because of the resiliency they think they have. They deal with sick animals, bad weather and volatile markets, and while those can create strength they also cause great stress.

She said she was surprised and encouraged at the number of people in the audience who stayed for the panel.

“The conversation starts with you,” she said.

Keller said aside from farmers sharing their own struggles either publicly or privately, she is seeing more of them reach out to others in a meaningful way.

“Instead of just the simple, ‘hey how’s it going? Yep I’m great,’ it’s actually taking the time to realize that maybe my neighbour didn’t get all their harvest done, or maybe my neighbour didn’t get all their seeding done and reaching out to make sure that they actually are OK,” she said.

Companies are stepping up by providing training to staff who deal with farmers so they can recognize what they might be going through, she said.

Keller related a story from earlier this year when she spoke at another panel. An older farmer approached the microphone, and she said the panelists braced for some backlash.

“Instead we got, ‘it’s about damn time we’re talking about this,’ ” she said. “He held up both of his hands and he said, ‘if I were to count on my hands how many people I’ve lost to suicide, I run out of fingers.’ ”

McFadyen said he has been in this field of work for 43 years and nobody is immune from the effects of stress.

“The hardest part is the decision to pick up the phone,” he told the crowd.

It’s confidential, and the crisis workers on the other end of the line all have hundreds of hours of training, he said.

Stewart’s company offers a 12-hour course called Mental Health First Aid. It teaches participants about substance disorders, mood disorders, depression, anxiety, psychotic disorders and what resources are available.

Participants leave with certification and the knowledge of how to recognize signs and symptoms in themselves and the people around them. They can assess risk of suicide or self harm and provide immediate intervention.

“What mental health first aid doesn’t do is make somebody a certified counsellor or a therapist, but what it does do is teach you how to support, within your means as an individual, your friend or neighbour,” Stewart said.

That can be as essential as physical first aid courses when people live in rural and remote areas, she added.

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