Loss of farm legacy called major suicide factor

Ontario hog producer tells his story of mental anguish and how one phone call helped pull him back from the brink

Just before Stewart Skinner planned to kill himself, he made a phone call.

It saved his life.

The Ontario hog farmer was in severe mental anguish as he faced the spectre of losing a farm that had been in his family for six generations. He saw only one way to stop the pain.

“I am so incredibly fortunate to have had a little voice in my head, the day I was ready to do it, say, ‘do one more reach out for help,’ ” Skinner said.

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“I called my parents and I said, ‘you need to get to this barn right now.’

“When that barn door opened and my mother rushed in and did nothing but hug me, I realized that it wouldn’t matter if I lost everything, if we lost everything that they’d built. My parents were going to love me unconditionally.”

The realization brought a glimmer of light to a dark situation, Skinner said during a session organized by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef.

The high level of stress among farmers has been well documented in recent years, leading, among other things, to the formation of Do More Agriculture Foundation, which is dedicated to protecting farmers’ mental health. Skinner now serves on the board of directors.

His fear and shame over potentially losing the family farm are emotions shared by other once-suicidal farmers who have been helped by Cynthia Beck, a Saskatchewan rancher and research assistant with Suicide Intervention Response.

Loss of the farm legacy is a major trigger, said Beck.

“The number one thing that everyone has in common (when considering suicide) is they’ve reached a level of hopelessness and helplessness, and it’s not even so much that they aren’t able to help themselves anymore,” she said.

“The most difficult thing for a farmer or ag producer to deal with is if they feel like they’re not helping their family anymore or they feel like they’re not helping the farm anymore. Because let’s face it, most of us are on generational farms. It was our parents who started this farm and the parents before them.”

Beck said it’s common to hear others say that people who commit suicide are selfish. She disagrees.

“It’s not about being selfish. No, actually that’s never on the top of their mind. Its always based on not being able to help the people that they love, or honour the farm that they’re now on.”

That was the case for Skinner. Tough times in the hog industry came just after he had initiated an expansion of the family operation in Ontario’s Perth County. The idea of destroying the family farm legacy was excruciating.

“When I was ready to kill myself, it was not coming from a place of anything other than, all I wanted was the pain to stop. I could not sleep at night. I could not escape the little voices in my head. It was hell.

“I had run out of ideas to try to make that stop, and the only thing I could think of was, ‘if I was dead, I would stop feeling this pain.’ ”

There are good ways and bad ways to approach a person who is obviously struggling. A simple query of ‘how are you’ is likely to elicit the automatic “I’m fine” response. So ask a second time, suggested Beck. “How are you really?” is an example.

“Then when they start talking, be quiet and listen. Don’t try to solve their problems because it doesn’t matter what you say or do; you are not the person who can solve their problems.

“Listening to them is the number one beneficial thing that you can do for somebody and provide them with a non-judgemental platform.”

Attempts to offer suggestions or “fix things” can instead discourage the person from talking or seeking future help, Beck said.

Farm Management Canada, a national organization formed to help farmers with business matters, has just completed a survey to gauge mental health in the sector and its relationship to farm business management.

The Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms report shows three out of every four farmers indicate they are moderately or highly stressed due to three main factors: unpredictability of the sector; workload and time constraints; and financial pressures.

FMC executive director Heather Watson said the study showed that highly stressed farmers spend more time crunching numbers and assessing different potential outcomes. They also spend more time than usual working, “and that can be detrimental not only to themselves but also to their families and some of their interpersonal relationships.

“We also found that, looking at different demographics, young farmers tend to resort to less effective coping mechanisms when stressed. This could be a measure of experience or the support that they have around them,” said Watson.

The study indicated that business planning can help alleviate some of the stress that reduces mental health. Watson said such planning is not about predicting the future but instead considering different scenarios and how the business can react to them.

“Risk management seems to be a language that resonates with farmers within the context of business planning as well as the peace of mind that can support mental health,” Watson said.

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