Among many constraints, COVID-19 has severely strained our emotional and mental health. The stress of the unknown and finding the resilience to keep pushing through week after week have tested everyone’s emotional capacity. Isolation and restrictions have created challenges even for those who may not normally experience poor mental health.
A population that has been underserved in addressing mental illness is the farming community. The University of Guelph shared a national survey in 2016 finding that 58 per cent of farmers met the criteria for anxiety, 35 per cent met the criteria for depression and 45 per cent experienced high stress. Most of these issues, however, remain undiagnosed and there is a major stigma associated with mental health in agriculture.
Farming workplaces are very unique, making it more difficult to understand the everyday challenges. A farm is not the type of workplace that has a human resource staff member to make sure everyone’s doing okay or financial aid from the government for employee mental health. This is not the type of workplace that makes it easy to step away from the office and separate work from home. And this is certainly not the type of workplace where people take time for a mental check-in.
It is important to understand the challenges surrounding mental health in agriculture that have been heightened during this past year. Mental health counsellor at The Delton Glebe Counselling Centre in Waterloo Ontario, Chad Bouma, shares that there have been extreme differences this year in comparison to others. “Baseline mental health has brought everything way up and the ability to manage has become extremely difficult.”
In farming communities, in addition to the extra pressures from COVID, there are serious rural barriers that coexist with a farming lifestyle, as well as a strong stigma associated with mental health. Discussion with Ontario grain farmer Jennifer Doelman brings a great perspective to this conversation.
Jenn has known farming her whole life, growing up in a farming family and now raising her children together with her husband on their grain farm. Having experienced the pressures of farming life and the darkness to which it can lead, she is a strong advocate for raising mental health awareness and dropping the stigma.
Rural barriers to access help
Accessibility is an extreme barrier that often prevents farmers from seeking help. Distance and time, especially in combination, make it extremely difficult to reach the help that is often only available in urban centers.
To book the appointment, drive into the city, wait for the counsellor to see you, go through with the counselling session and drive back home, takes more time than a farmer wants to think about when they’ve got a lot on the to-do list. During the busiest seasons particularly, farmers cannot step away from the farm when they barely have enough time to eat and sleep. These high stress seasons may lead some to a breaking point, but they do not have an option to step away nor sub someone else in. There are no stress leaves, especially for farmers with livestock from whom the animals are their priority while mental health takes a backseat.
Doelman shares that her first experience seeking help was terrifying. “I was so out of my element physically and mentally just waiting to see the counsellor.” Without proper resources and services in place, people are left with hopelessness and darkness that can leave them at serious personal risk.
Especially in situations in which people not only feel internally isolated but also experience physical isolation, getting help can be even harder. This has been a major side effect of the pandemic that we have all felt but in rural communities it has heightened the existing loneliness.
An additional restriction to consider is the financial barrier that exists for farmers. Farmers do not have access to financial benefits similar to those of other careers. Most often, the costs of living take priority over therapy or counselling sessions.
Bouma shares “in an ideal world we could create an option of having a counselling session right in the field.” This removes the daunting environment of a clinic, the time it takes to get to the clinic, and creates a very fluid and comfortable environment for the person who is struggling. Finding the right clinic can also take away from the ultimate reason for seeking help as it typically takes meeting three mental health professionals before finding the right counsellor.
A balancing act
Farming is an extremely rewarding career but with many uncontrollable stressors. Wind, rain, frost and disease, among other factors, are all things that control the outcome of crop and livestock health. Besides weather, markets are also out of the farmers’ hands. Markets are set at a world price and farmers don’t have a consistent income from year to year. Each of these factors contribute to constant stress that for many is difficult to identify and address. 68 per cent of farmers are more susceptible to chronic stress which is also a large contributor to mental illness.
Farming is a career that demands attention seven-days a week and farmers often work themselves to the point where they have little left to offer. Yet, it is much easier to find another thing to do on the farm than take a well-needed break. This non-stop mentality is ever-present during the busy planting and harvesting seasons when there never seems to be enough time. Farmers cannot take sick days or personal days to reboot their minds, let alone take a weekend off to get away from work. This, however, should not be an excuse to let mental health fall through the cracks.
Doelman shares her experience of denying her need for help and not getting help until her absolute breaking point. Growing up in a household that fostered work as a method of coping with stress, influenced Doelman to get lost in hard work. Naturally, this became her coping method for all big and small challenges.
“I was a workaholic but couldn’t accept that for the longest time. I was at the point of recurring suicidal thoughts but luckily my maternal instinct kicked in – my kids needed me to be healthy and strong so although I couldn’t ask for help for myself, I could hold myself accountable that I needed to get better for them.” At this point she chose to seek help as a final effort to turn things around.
Doelman experienced the challenge of balancing her personal life with a farm business life. On top of the general stress of running a family farm, life happened. Family succession planning impacted foundational relationships in her life, she and her husband lost their first child before full term and in the midst of the COVID outbreak, her husband developed a serious heart condition that largely impacted his physical capabilities.
Through each of these challenges, she was unable to turn to an employer or consult with a human resources rep and had no access to grief counselling, even after asking for help from her family doctor. Doelman had no external support system which caused extreme burnout. She was unable to disassociate business from her home life or even separate her identity as a person from that of a farmer.
She also recognizes the additional constraints female farmers face after having children. There is no maternity leave and thus, no opportunity to take time away from work to fully heal.
Small actions throughout the day to be mindful of stress or anxiety levels is a great place to start addressing these big or small stresses. Bouma mentions the benefits of videotherapy or teletherapy throughout COVID that have increased accessibility levels of seeking help. The bottom line is that intervention cannot be a last-minute resort. These small actions are imperative to prevent farmers from reaching a point where they require an overwhelming amount of assistance that can be unbearable to face.
Removing the stigma
Stigmas are a dangerous association of things that are feared and uncomfortable. The stigma of mental health in agriculture impacts farmers’ perceptions of the issue. 40% of agriculture producers share they would feel uneasy seeking professional help because of what others may think. Stigmas must evolve over time and new generations must be taught how to identify emotions. Normalizing the conversation of mental health and improving discussions of mental illness is a great place to start.
Farmers are boxed into a certain type of character. Strong, resilient and hard working. Somewhere along the way this characterization equated mental instability with a sign of weakness. Showing signs of weakness threatens the integrity of a farmer. Failing to respond to mental health creates a ripple effect on the roles and responsibilities of farmers.
Bouma shares that the agriculture community is vulnerable but not in a way that makes its sound weak. “Some farmers just don’t have the resources or self-awareness of these systemic challenges.” Farmers are proud of what they do and they never want to fall short of the set expectation.
Doelman makes an excellent point in that our society does not teach us, at a young age, how to identify and deal with these external pressures. Mental health counsellors are not normalized public figures that we learn to commonly interact with. At a young age, police officers, firefighters and doctors are invited into the classroom to explain their roles in society and are looked up to as positive public figures. We never have that introduction with counsellors which can make them feared or foreign figures.
Doelman admits it was harder to accept that she needed help than actually seeking the help. “It felt like a shameful process and your ego gets in the way. But the more you get comfortable with it, the easier it gets and the more rewarding. Finding a mental health counsellor who was accepting and non-judgmental of the situation was incredibly freeing. She helped me develop strategies to better understand how to cope with things beyond my control, like succession planning, family dynamics and financial stresses.”
New resources raise awareness
On a positive note, 81% of people in rural communities are more aware of mental health now than they were 5 years ago. Many large agricultural organizations have stepped up to the plate to prioritize mental health and create serious awareness.
The Do More Ag foundation, based out of Saskatchewan, has developed many valuable resources to normalize the conversation of mental health across the country.
Additionally, Deb Vanberkel from Cultivate Counselling Services has expanded her Farmer Wellness Program with the help of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA). It is now available in five Ontario regions to make available agricultural counsellors like Chad Bouma who have experience in agriculture and can connect to the problems some of these farmers are facing. OFA farm members are incentivized to use these services as the first four sessions are offered free and flexible appointment options are available to honour busy farm schedules.
To accent these resources, researchers in the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph have recently launched an In the Know mental health literacy program specifically for farmers. This program offers tailored resources to help farmers identify, understand and cope with the mental health challenges they face specific to their careers.
There is also a growing number of advocates that are farmers like Doelman. She shares, “I always wish I had someone to turn to, so now more than ever, I want to give others that opportunity to turn to someone who understands and let them know they matter.” Doelman adds, “your farm may be an important piece of you, but it doesn’t define you.” This stronger attitude of advocacy will continue to unite farmers and help them overcome the stigma of mental health.
Bouma shares his positive insight that COVID may be just another storm that has to be weathered but hopefully, there is more resilience among farmers. “A virus is about as natural as dirt and farmers know better than anyone that they have to focus on what they can control.”
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.