Mental health support built for farmers

Whether it’s storms and droughts, market crashes and trade disputes, strikes and consumer questions, Canadian farmers have a reputation for stoically soldiering on in the face of challenges. And yet, there is often a steep price to pay, in both health and productivity, for ignoring the stressors inherent in agriculture.

Lately, there has been more open discussion about mental health among farmers, and Dr.Andria Jones-Bitton, associate professor at the University of Guelph, helped put some numerical meat on the bones of these discussions with a study that looked at the issue from an epidemiological perspective — the first research project of its kind to take this approach. The results are telling and have formed the basis of a new mental health literacy initiative project for the country.

MEASURES OF STRESS

The study began in 2015-16 with an online survey of more than a thousand farmers. PhD candidate Briana Hagen followed this up with in-depth, one-on-one interviews with farmers. The study measured the major aspects of burnout — exhaustion, cynicism, and effectiveness at work — and the results showed that farmers’ scores were all above international norms.

In the Know is a mental health literacy program tailored to the farm community by using farm ways of life to inform and educate.

Digging deeper into the profiles, the work revealed only 41 per cent of participants felt “engaged” in their work. The number of farmers who were classified as ineffective, overextended or disengaged was slightly higher, at 47 per cent. And finally, 12 per cent of respondents felt burnt out. Those are some pretty alarming figures.

The project also quantified the attribute of resilience by asking farmers to rank their own ability to bounce back from adversity or come through hard challenges with new coping skills or strengths. “Initially, I was expecting farmer resilience to be quite good,” says Jones-Bitton. “But we actually found resilience in farmers was lower in comparison to the general population.

“I was mistakenly thinking of the ability for farmers to ‘plough on,'” she says. “We know when the going gets tough, farmers tend to keep going, and keep pushing on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re resilient, or that they’re thriving. In the Know is a mental health literacy program tailored to the farm community by using farm ways of life to inform and educate. in the face of adversity,” Jones-Bitton explains. “So that was a little surprising to me initially. Many are still managing to get through those daily tasks and their chores and continuing to operate their businesses, but it’s likely having a longer-term impact through things like chronic stress.”

STRESS AND THE BOTTOM LINE

Stress can also ultimately impact a farm’s bottom-line, says Jones-Bitton. “I think that is a very common thing in our western culture where we almost wear stress and overwork as a badge of honour,” she says. “We might think we’re being productive when we continue to push through during times of high stress. But in fact, the research shows that our productivity is actually low.”

She says it’s important to recognize that some stress is okay, but we need to recognize what’s good and what’s bad. “We want to have some stress,” says Jones-Bitton. “It’s called eustress and that’s the good stress that gets us motivated, energized and focused.

“Unfortunately, too many of us are out of eustress and into distress, where it does have an impact on how our mind and body works, and therefore impacts our productivity as well. We also know conditions like depression, anxiety and burnout are associated with lower productivity,” she says. “I like to tell people if you can’t attend to your personal wellbeing because it’s important personally, then perhaps consider attending to your wellbeing because it’s important professionally.”

FROM RESEARCH TO ACTION

The one-on-one, hour-long interviews with farmers (and people who work with them) added deeper personal insights to the initial survey. “People in the ag community are motivated to learn more about mental health and want to do something,” says Hagen. “Every single person had a story of someone they knew — a neighbour, friend, or family member, who had been touched by mental health, and almost everybody had a story of someone near them who had died by suicide.

“We heard a call to action,” says Hagen. “Farmers told us there was a need to do something. What we needed was a place to start.” So she and Jones-Bitton set to work developing In the Know, a mental health literacy program tailored to the farm community by using farm ways of life to inform and educate. They conducted six pilot sessions last year with 100 people then refined it some more.

Both researchers identified unique barriers that farmers often face when it comes to mental health support.

  • Cultural. Farmers indicated they want someone to talk with who understands the realities and real-life stressors of farming.
  • Community. The stigma around seeking help for mental health is changing, but probably hasn’t disappeared yet.
  • Geographic. Not all rural areas have family doctors in the community, let alone specialized services like mental health practitioners.
  • Time. When producers have to travel and take time away from farm work to get help, it adds to their stress, so online or tele-services would be helpful. (One benefit of COVID-19 confinement is people have become much more used to such delivery methods.)
  • Financial. Many farmers don’t have benefits that cover sessions with a psychologist or counsellor.

In the Know aims to address some of these barriers. It’s a four-hour discussion-based session, aimed at increasing knowledge around common mental health struggles and issues that farmers identified as important. It also provides tools to recognize signs and symptoms of those struggles, and to enable conversations about mental health in appropriate and safe ways. In addition, it lets participants know about resources in their regions to guide people to, if they want help.

The plan is to make the program available to anyone who would like to take it. Jones-Bitton and Hagen are working on a partnership agreement with a national organization to administer the program and offer training across Canada. Eventually, it could become an online resource as well.

Jones-Bitton presented the research findings to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, which released its report Mental Health: A Priority of our Farmers, making a number of recommendations supporting mental health efforts for agriculture.

Taking their project from research to a meaningful tool was important to both Hagen and Jones-Bitton. They contend that just as farmers are always looking for ways to improve their production methods, they could benefit by working on their mental coping skills as well.

Says Hagen: “Farmers seem to be solution-finders, and it has been amazing to see how committed they are to making sure we’re doing something to tackle mental health, and how committed they are to making sure those ‘somethings’ are tailored to their community.” FF

Online resources:
You can read the full research report published in professional journals here:

Stress, anxiety, depression and resilience in Canadian farmers:
www.farmforum.ca/stresspaper

Research trends in farmers’ mental health
www.farmforum.ca/farmermentalhealthtrends

Farmer burnout in Canada
www.farmforum.ca/farmerburnout