Never has farming been under such high scrutiny as it is today. However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the modern world has never needed agriculture more than it does today.
Farmers bear the weight of the world as the main source of global food supplies.
As a result, recent studies have concluded that suicide rates are higher among farmers, and that they report higher levels of stress, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout than the general population.
Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and her team of researchers from the University of Guelph surveyed 1,100 farmers from across Canada regarding the state of farmer mental health.
They found 45 percent of farmers had high stress levels, and 58 percent and 35 percent, respectively, met the clinical criteria for anxiety and depression.
Additionally, they discovered a high risk for burnout. As well, 67 percent of those polled showed lower than average resilience, which over time, leaves them susceptible to the consequences of chronic stress, including both physical and mental illness.
“When you think about the wide range of stresses that our farmers experience on a day-to-day basis, most of those stressors are outside of their control,” said Jones-Bitton. “There’s likely a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that comes with that, and helplessness and hopelessness predispose us to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.”
According to the findings by Jones-Bitton and her team, “these results are concerning and represent a major risk to the Canadian agricultural sector as poor mental health and well-being has negative implications for the individual farmer, as well as their families, livestock, production, and financial bottom lines.”
Increased stress levels for farmers have resulted in more calls to the Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services (MFRNSS) toll-free phone line. It is one of only two programs in Canada that support farmers through a free, anonymous call-in phone service providing information, counselling support and a referral service to farm, rural and northern Manitobans. It reports that call volume at the end of 2019 had risen 30 percent and expects it to rise even further as the financial impact of the current situation becomes more apparent.
“Research has shown that the mental health and well-being of a producer has a direct impact on the quality of care their animals receive and the management decisions that he or she may make on the farm,” said Kim Hyndman-Moffat of Strathclair, Man., who has been involved with the support line since its inception in 2000. “Healthy farmers equal healthy farms is one of our slogans.”
Jones-Bitton and her team have since developed a mental health literacy program specifically targeted at those involved in the agricultural industry. The course provides education on topics such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse and starting safe conversations about mental health.
Farm Credit Canada has also recognized the seriousness of the mental health situation facing the agricultural sector, and has committed $100,000 toward farmer mental health for 2020. It has partnered with the Do More Agriculture Foundation to create mental health awareness and training throughout rural Canada.
“Our deep commitment to agriculture means we care about the wellness of our customers,” said Trevor Sutter, senior consultant of media relations for FCC.
Although FCC has support programs in place for other farm-related crises, they felt they could do more when it came to mental health. The Rooted in Strength publication released in 2018 with a subsequent printing this year, along with resource pages and support links on their website, were started to fit the bill.
Founded by farmers for farmers is the premise behind Do More Ag, an organization geared toward farmer mental health.
According to its website, the organization’s three pillars are creating awareness in educating and helping to break the stigma about mental health; creating a sense of community and a safe place for people to connect; and conducting continuing research.
“Our three asks of individuals when it comes to mental health is to talk, ask, and listen — more,” said Adelle Stewart, executive director of Do More Ag. “Coping mechanisms are extremely individual, so understanding that at an elementary level is pinnacle. Help looks different for everyone.”
Katey Darr, a young farm woman who has struggled with mental illness, agreed.
“What works for one person might not work for the next, but the more tools you have in your toolbox, the easier it will be for you to cope,” she said of the supports she has sought in the past.
The increasing number of easily accessible supports that ensure anonymity go a long way to making a difference. So do formal one-on-one counselling sessions and community mental health services, along with informal means like social media platforms, a neighbour’s kitchen table, or a friend or family’s listening ear.
Sometimes just saying it out loud can be a powerful first step.
“Seeking help is and always should be seen as a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness,” said Hyndman-Moffat.
“Sometimes all you need is for someone to listen, so if someone seems to be having a rough go, a simple listening ear can mean more than you realize to the person,” said Darr.
She also stressed the importance of needing to be understood.
“When looking for supports, I want something or someone I can relate to — a program that understands the complexity of farming, and the feelings and fears that can come along throughout the year,” she said.
Hyndman-Moffat said this is taken into account at MFRNSS.
“A large part of the work that we do is connecting with our callers. Having that shared life experience can go a long way in helping the caller to feel connected.”