Farmers suffering mental health issues fail to seek help

Canadian farmers may stoically face crop failure, equipment breakdowns and disease but they are not immune to stress, depression, emotional exhaustion or burnout.

In a nationwide survey of more than 1,000 producers, Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton discovered that 45 percent of those surveyed had high stress, 58 percent were classified with varying levels of anxiety and 35 percent suffered depression.

The University of Guelph re-searcher learned that significant numbers of farmers had high levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism, 38 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

“I have the utmost respect for farmers because they are savvy and have a strong work ethic,” says Jones-Bitton.

“I expected them to score off the chart when questioned about their ability to cope with adversity.”

The researcher says the culture of the industry may be the reason for mental health concerns.

“There’s a wide array of stress farmers face day in and day out and many are outside their control, such as weather and government policy changes. They also work in social isolation, which can be a factor.”

The survey’s findings come as no surprise to Elaine Froese, a mental health coach based in Boissevain, Man.

She says one in five Canadians struggle with mental health issues and farmers are not immune. In her practice, she assists producers to get the help they need.

“Sometimes farmers have depression-like symptoms but it might be something else,” Froese says. “One farmer had sleep apnea and a thyroid condition that was undiagnosed and that’s why he appeared depressed.”

Froese says that the nature of agriculture with large sums of money tied up in fixed assets and the attitude of handling everything alone creates stress.

“Farmers avoid conflict resolution,” she says.

That can lead to marital problems or generational difficulties if parents and children are farming together.

There was a sign of hope for Jones-Bitton when three-quarters of the respondents in the survey agreed professional mental health services can be helpful and almost as many said they would seek help.

“We’re going to find ways for them to receive it.”

The next phase of her research is to develop a mental health literacy program and a mental health emergency response program.

Manitoba is the only western province that continues to operate a rural help line.

Froese says that the culture of agriculture in small towns may also prevent farmers from seeking help because someone will see the truck parked at the doctor’s office. Families will keep their conflict internal so the neighbours don’t know there are problems.

“If you feel sad, get help,” says Froese. “Farmers will medicate sick animals, but they won’t get help for themselves. This needs to change. Mental health issues have always been with us and it’s good we are finally talking about it.”

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