Digital infrastructure key to protecting mental health

It is the message we hear repeatedly in addressing agriculture and stress: the things that draw farmers to the business — resilience, independence, hard work — are the very characteristics that can prevent farmers from getting help when they become overwhelmed.

Farmers, it is known, are supposed to tough it out. Fortunately, that culture is beginning to change, but even 13 years after mental health issues in agriculture were addressed in earnest, there are still barriers for farmers who wish to seek help.

An initiative on farmers and stress in 2005 had several goals — a national stress summit, a national farm-stress strategy, a farm-stress line and peer-to-peer support services. These proposals went unfulfilled due to lack of funding.

Some initiatives have since come to pass through other means. Stress lines, for example, have been set up in many provinces. The DoMoreAg web page carries a list.

Current efforts, including hearings by the House committee on agriculture, have rekindled the initiative.

Evidence of the effects of stress on farmers is too strong to ignore. A national survey of farmers and mental health showed that 35 percent of producers met the criteria for depression. Forty-five percent faced high stress levels. Fifty-eight percent faced anxiety. These numbers are much higher than those in the general population.

While Canada does not keep suicide statistics for farmers, a study in the United States two years ago found farmers there were five times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. It’s not a stretch to see similar conditions in Canada.

The causes of stress on farmers are many, but what’s most difficult to deal with is circumstances that are beyond their control.

Southern Ontario farmer Andrew Campbell laid out examples in his testimony before the committee last week: The effects of weather on planting, growing and harvesting; a trade war between two foreign countries; lower grain prices; interest rates; growing conditions in Brazil; milk prices in Wisconsin; meat demand in Asia; steel prices for equipment; animal health.

There is nothing more depressing to farmers than the belief that they have done everything right — planted the right crops, fertilized appropriately, sprayed chemicals at the right time — only to see earnings disappear due to circumstances beyond their control.

Megzz Reynolds of Kyle, Sask., delivered powerful testimony recently on her reaction after her crop was destroyed by a hailstorm: “It was also the first time in my life that I felt like a complete failure. A failure as a farmer, a failure as a spouse, and a failure as a provider for my family.”

A failure? Of course not. Reynolds, like other farmers, has the courage to persevere in an occupation where uncertainties are certain.

All of this is exacerbated by the isolation many farmers experience. The fortunate ones find their own social network with nearby farmers, but that is not enough.

Chief among the many recommendations the House committee is hearing is the need for a robust digital network. Access to professional support through a video connection in the privacy of farmers’ homes is seen as a vital, since 40 percent of farmers say they are uneasy about seeking help because of what others might think.

Two million Canadians do not have high-speed internet. No doubt many of those reading this are among them.

We are asking more of farmers with larger farms, social licence and sustainable practices. Society places a high importance on agriculture. We now recognize that farmers face high stress and suicide rates.

Our digital infrastructure in rural areas must be addressed, not just for economic reasons, but for sheer quality of life.

Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.

 

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