Mental Health on the Farm
Tanya Vander Vecht | April 12, 2021
Until COVID-19 hit, I truly did not appreciate the balancing act of working from where you live, especially for those with young families. The isolation, tending to work and home when the lines become blurred, being able to pull yourself away from your "work" and give yourself and the ones you love the attention they need. I work as a support professional in the agriculture industry, so naturally, I wondered about the farmers our business supports and how they manage their mental wellness in such a demanding environment which exposes them to the elements I was newly facing.
Farmers have a great deal of additional stress related to their trade. They are up against weather that can threaten their livelihood if it is not conducive to their crops' needs; in livestock industries, animal health and welfare are a top priority and constant concern. Farmers care for their animals and rely on them for their families' sustainability. All of this takes place in a publicized and political environment that does not always support their efforts.
Farmer's carry an additional burden, supporting their communities. The products they produce stimulate and support the local economy and provide products that individuals and families rely on, such as vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy. Financial stress is paramount in the agriculture industry. Farmers are used to looking at large numbers and taking large risks; finding the right support to help make well-informed decisions is essential in reducing this burden, but not always easy.
When you unpack the realities of life on the farm, you can understand why over 60% of farmers are viewed as more susceptible to chronic stress, and physical and mental illness than the general public, as indicated by respondents to the National Survey of Farmer Mental Health conducted by the University of Guelph, where farmers scored lower than average in terms of resilience (1).
According to recent studies completed by the University of Guelph, 40% of farmers interviewed reported that they do not feel comfortable reaching out for professional help with mental health due to others' perception, their peers (3). Rob Sharkey, the Shark Farmer podcast and sharkfarmer.com (4), asserts a culture of silence within the farming community regarding mental health. He suggests that farmers are expected to be tough and hardworking and that mental health is viewed as a weakness, and this perception makes it harder for them to talk about the issues they are facing. As someone who struggles with mental health, I want to implore you, if you are part of this 40%, to reach out and not bear the weight alone. Stigma is an unfortunate barrier throughout society. The ag industry is not averse to it, but we can begin to remove this barrier by getting help, raising awareness, and speaking out.
Fortunately, in recent years, some amazing people have been working to raise awareness and create resources to support mental wellbeing in the agriculture industry. The Do More Agriculture Foundation (www.domore.ag) is a not-for-profit organization that focuses on creating programs, building partnerships, and providing access to resources focused on mental health in agriculture in Canada. The organization's website provides a list of resources in each province; here, you can find local health professionals and organizations that offer support. The Canadian Mental Health Association (www.cmha.ca) offers services and supports across Canada, such as counselling, support lines, training for managing staff's mental health, and more.
Grain Farmers of Ontario offers webinars and connections to resources, visit their website, and select "Farmer Wellness" (5) to see current and upcoming offerings. The Canadian Agriculture Safety Association has a wealth of resources such as toolkits and blogs that cover specific issues related to stress and healthy relationships on the farm in their Mental Health & Stress section of their website (6). Another great resource is the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs website; they offer a Mental Health for Farmers First Aid Kit on their website (7). Links for all these resources are provided at the end of this article.
The Mental Health Helpline is available 24/7 at 1-866-531-2600
What can you do right now to help yourself or someone around you who may struggle with their mental wellbeing? Here are a few suggestions:
Ask, are you okay? A recent mental health campaign launched in Scotland highlighted the power of a simple phrase, Are you okay? (8). If we do not ask, we do not know, and those who are struggling do not know that we care and that we are a resource. Sometimes simply reaching out to those around us and letting them know we are here can make a big impact. If you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust; if you know someone who may be struggling, ask them, are you okay?
5-4-3-2-1: This technique is especially good when you are in a state of heightened anxiety. How does it work? Simple. Take a moment to remove yourself from the situation you are facing and walk yourself through these steps.
1) Identify FIVE things you can see,
2) Identify FOUR things you can touch
3) Identify THREE things that you can hear,
4) Identify TWO things you can smell,
5) Identify your current emotion; is it different from when you began?
Meditation: There are guided meditation sessions available online for free on YouTube. You can also check out apps like Headspace, The Mindfulness App, or Waking Up; some may have fees and offer free trials or several other free options. There, of course, is also the option of taking a class. However, meditation comes down to allowing yourself to quiet your mind and focus on your body, the space around you, and taking a pause from the other aspects of life.
Listen to your favourite tunes, or even sing them! Music has a healing power that we often neglect, but we all know that at the end of a day when we can sit back and throw on the tunes, put up our feet, and belt out our possibly out of tune renditions of Thunder Rolls, we undeniably feel good.
Rest & Eat: Often, a busy day gets away with us, and sometimes that busy day started very early, and it ended very late. Did you remember to stop for lunch? Did you keep working through the stomach pangs? Take breaks, and when you do, actually take them, walk away from your work and actively try to shut off the working brain for a moment. Ensure you are getting adequate sleep; sleep is paramount in reducing stress and anxiety.
Acceptance: If you are not familiar with the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr, familiarize yourself with this exert "American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971). It is commonly quoted as:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference." (9)
We must accept that some things are outside of our control. We do what we can with what we have, but sometimes we need to be brave enough to acknowledge that something is outside our ability to control. Use your energy efficiently by putting it into the things you can manage and complete.
Overall Self-Care: Above all else, self-care. It is important to take time for you to do something you enjoy. Relax, go fishing, walk in the woods, target practice, watch some television, guiltlessly scroll through the social media feed, or fall into the YouTube wormhole. Whatever works for you, find some time and do it.
Mental health is important in all walks of life, but the ag industry has its own set of complexities. Within the farming community, a farmer heavily relies on one another. When your tractor breaks down, you call your neighbour for help; why is it any different when the issue is with your wellbeing? It is time to open the conversation, to build bridges where we have previously built walls. For everything you do, I want to thank you! Without farmer's we would not have community, we would not have resource sustainability, and folks like myself wouldn't have the time to explore our interests as we would be too busy worrying about our next meal or tending to the skillful creation of goods from the remains of a hunt.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please share the resources provided here, contact your family doctor, or call a friend.
References and Resources
(1) Jones-Bitton, A (2016) Submission to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food: Strengthening Canada’s Agricultural Sector - A Canadian Network for Farmer Mental Health. University of Guelph. Retrieved from https://www.ourcommons.ca/Content/Committee/421/AGRI/Brief/BR10199410/br-external/UniversityOfGuelph-e.pdf
(2) Mental health in the agriculture industry (cmha.ca)
a. In the Know – Mental Health Literacy Program for Farmers and the Ag Community - https://ontario.cmha.ca/intheknow/
(3) Mental health on the farm – Real Dirt on Farming
(4) Successful Farming (29, May 2019) Mental Health Awareness on the Farm | Ag Influencers | Successful Farming. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flE87YBGKBQ
(5) Grain Farmers of Ontario (n.d.) Farmer Wellness. Retrieved from https://gfo.ca/farmerwellness/
(6) Canadian Agriculture Safety Association (n.d.) Mental Health & Stress. Retrieved from https://www.casa-acsa.ca/en/topic/mental-health-stress/
(7) Mental Health for Farmers; First Aid Kit (gov.on.ca)
(8) See Me | Power of Okay (seemescotland.org)
(9) Niebuhr, R (n.d) Serenity Prayer. Beliefnet Retrieved from https://www.beliefnet.com/prayers/protestant/addiction/serenity-prayer.aspx