Mental health issues in agriculture receive higher profile

Farming has long been considered to be among the most dangerous occupations.

Long hours are commonplace, financial risks are real and factors such as weather are out of a person’s control.

Combine that with the isolation and loneliness that can sometimes accompany its rural setting and producers’ struggles can’t be ignored regardless of their talent and passion.

For the longest time, the attitude within the agriculture community was to take all the stress and the struggles in stride. “Cowboy up,” people said. Be farm tough.

Today, that mentality is starting to change.

A number of farmer suicides across the country have left the agriculture community heartbroken and prompted some very public discussions, largely on social media, about the stresses and struggles that come with farm life.

At the forefront of this discussion is the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a not for profit aimed at raising awareness about mental health in agriculture.

The foundation provides a detailed list of mental health resources for farmers and has recently partnered with Farm Credit Canada on a one-year pilot project aimed at providing mental health training to professionals in select rural communities.

FCC has committed $50,000 to the project, one of several agricultural organizations to partner with the Do More Ag Foundation. Bayer has pledged $20,000.

The farm community isn’t the only group talking about mental health these days. The file has also been top of mind in Ottawa.

This past spring, the House of Commons agriculture committee agreed to study the mental health challenges Canadian farmers and ranchers face. MPs agreed to hold a minimum of four meetings on the subject to give producers, officials and others a chance to testify.

The committee managed to hold one meeting on the subject before Parliament rose for its summer recess. MPs heard from two witnesses: Agriculture Canada assistant deputy minister Tom Rosser and Farm Credit Canada’s Michael Hoffort.

The statistics shared were eye opening.

Unlike other countries, Canada doesn’t have specific data about suicide rates within the agricultural community. (A 2016 study by the Centre for Disease Control found agriculture workers in the United States were five times more likely to take their own life compared to the general population.)

However, a 2016 University of Guelph study that surveyed a thousand Canadian producers found farmers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health.

“Of the 1,000 Canadian farmers contacted for a survey, 45 percent were experiencing high stress levels, 58 percent reported symptoms of anxiety and 35 percent were dealing with depression,” Rosser said. “All those figures are much higher than the average found in the general population.”

Farming’s strain on mental health, Hoffort said, isn’t limited to tough economic times.

The struggles that producers are facing are real, he stressed, adding Farm Credit Canada is “seeing first-hand the need for increased support in this area as more applications to our ag crisis fund appear to be related to incidents that have suicide as a factor.”

Last year, FCC had 287 customers seek funding through its ag crisis fund, valued at $405,000. Two of those applications, Hoffart said, were tied to suicides. This year, in two and half months, 67 situations have been recorded, of which eight were suicide related, a reality he said is “quite alarming. Three of eight were farm operators, he noted. The remaining five incidents involved farm children.

“We’re hoping this is not a growing trend,” Hoffart said June 13.

The remaining committee meetings are expected to be held when MPs return from their summer recess this fall.

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