Culture shift is difficult, but ag has shown it is possible

I’ve been noticing a significant culture shift within the industry lately, one that will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the long-term health and sustainability of farming.

As an industry, we’ve minimized the powerful stigma that exists around mental health. Industries, just like people, typically won’t change unless they have to. However, low points or crisis often force societies to deal with underlying issues that have been avoided.

Not more than a couple years ago I remember when the words “mental health” made an entire conference room of young farmers cringe. I recall friends of mine bravely standing up in front of an entire room proclaiming that, as farmers, we need to talk more about our mental health. The energy in the room immediately became stoic, and the discussion went nowhere.

At that time, mental health was the elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. A 2016 University of Guelph study found that 60 percent of farmers reported experiencing anxiety and 35 percent suffered from depression. Back then, farmers were choosing, perhaps unknowingly, to suffer in silence.

Within the last year and a half, farmers have started talking about their struggles: on social media, in their community and even in front of live audiences on stages across North America. They share fears, daily stressors and even their medical diagnosis of anxiety or depression. Following initial efforts, industry and media took notice and showed their support for farmers through funding, awareness campaigns and resource development.

This past October during Mental Health Awareness Week, the House of Commons agriculture committee hosted a meeting where farmers shared their mental health struggles with MPs.

The Farm Stress Line, a 24-hour help line for farmers, has been available since 1974 but use had been low and awareness was lacking.

“In the 2017-18 fiscal year, the Farm Stress Line received 320 calls, an increase from 227 calls in the previous fiscal year,” notes John McPhadden, executive director of Mobile Crisis, the non-profit that houses the service.

McPhadden credits the recent increase in calls to groups such as DoMoreAg, Bridges Health and Farm Credit Canada for their recently published Rooted in Strength mental health resource. The most common farming related calls involve financial debt, cash flow and bankruptcy, he added.

The percentage of farmers struggling with mental health is high in the agriculture industry, but these rates aren’t exactly unique to the sector. The health care and education sector typically come out on top for mental health related illnesses. Further to this, in any given year, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness or addiction problem.

However, farmers’ struggles are unique, and McPhadden argues that they are more complex to treat than in other sectors.

“There are logistical barriers for one, and the geographical distance to counselling services or isolation have the potential to compact struggles or disincentive farmers from seeking treatment,” he said.

“As farms become larger, farmers take on a more demanding role as CEO of a large business and with this comes greater decision making responsibility, which ultimately increases stress levels.”

Farm-related stress isn’t going away, but it seems the general environment for open and honest conversations about real issues has improved. Our appetite for change has grown. We’re more equipped to treat, support and perhaps prevent further struggles from happening.

They say it takes eight years for a culture shift to happen. I’d argue that agriculture is well on its way to a game-changing, life-saving culture shift. We’re finally starting to figure out that healthy farmers manage profitable family farms, and as an industry, we need to support both of these.

Kelsey Johnson’s Capital Letters column will return.

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