Agriculture tackles mental health

OTTAWA — Stewart Skinner has stood on that edge between despair and death.

And the Ontario hog farmer could have been there again just a few weeks ago if he hadn’t dealt with his mental illness.

“I came very, very close to killing myself in a pig barn in 2013,” he told a rural mental health symposium at the Canadian Federation of Agricultural annual meeting last month.

The family farm had just undergone an expansion that hadn’t turned out well, he said. He blamed himself, fell into depression and became irrational.

That day in the barn, he called his parents and he got help.

He learned to recognize the triggers of his depression and to focus on the good things in his life.

In mid-February 2018, another disaster struck.

“In one of our niche-market production systems we’ve lost 25 percent of our pigs in the last week-and-a-half,” he said Feb. 28.

This will be the first time he can’t pay his feed bill on time, he said.

Yet he began his presentation with a video of his young son, Bryce, and some piglets in the barn. In the background behind a short wall is a pile of dead pigs from the most recent trouble.

Skinner said the video illustrates what farming with mental health challenges is like for him.

“I’m always able to focus on my cute little son and what’s good,” he said. “If we went back (to 2013), I would have been only able to focus on the dead pigs at the back of that barn.”

A variation of Skinner’s story could be told many times across Canada in the farming community.

The 2015-16 study often referenced in regard to the mental health of Canadian farmers found the rate of anxiety is 1.5 times higher than the general population in the United Kingdom while the rate of depression is 1.7 times higher.

Rates were also higher when compared to a study of Norwegian farmers about 20 years ago.

Tim Nelson, chief executive officer of the Livestock Research Innovation Corp., spoke on behalf of the organizations that funded the Canadian research.

He said the study also found that farmers aren’t as resilient as many think.

While the average resilience score for the American general population is 81 out of 100, the average for Canadian producers was 71.

Nelson said farmers are carrying on, but they aren’t thriving.

While they are open to seeking mental health support, about 40 percent said they feel uneasy about that because of what others might think, Nelson said.

Fifty-seven percent of farmers said they weren’t satisfied with industry support. They want help from people who understand agriculture, and Nelson said three initiatives are underway to improve support. This includes interviewing people, getting ideas from those who have experienced mental illness and developing a mental health information program and emergency response.

The CFA and the Do More Agriculture Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding during the meeting to raise awareness and money for research.

A new Brigid Rivoire Memorial Award for Best Practices in Mental Health is part of the partnership. The award honouring CFA’s long-time executive director, who died from cancer last year, will be presented at each annual meeting to farmers in Canada who demonstrate best practices in mental health on their farms and in their communities.

“For Brigid, it was not only about the issues, it was about the people,” said CFA president Ron Bonnett.

The research component of the partnership will include a plan for strategic outreach and identifying research projects that address gaps in mental health support.

Skinner said the agricultural community has helped him through his struggle. He has found a “watershed change” in the last 24 months as more people talk about their own experiences. He said finding ways to continue the conversation is what’s needed.

“To me, we’ve come a long, long way on mental health and it’s exciting because if we start to build these communities and we have these services, it becomes a lot easier to stay focused on the good things,” he said. “We’ve come so far in fighting with that stigma.”

He also encouraged farmers to take time for themselves. He said it took three years to accept he would deal with his mental health for the rest of his life.

“The best way to deal with it is to try to head it off at the pass,” Skinner said.

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