Farm mental health struggles topic of hearings

Commons agriculture committee is hearing the growing chorus calling for better supports for farmers

Farmer walking toward combine.

It has been a long road bringing the mental health challenges in agriculture to the attention of the federal government but hearings on the topic by the Commons agriculture committee is providing a venue.

Dairy farmer Andrew Camp­bell, a prominent internet blogger, painted the picture of what producers face in a recent presentation to the Commons agriculture committee.

“Things that we can’t control in agriculture lead to those sleepless nights spent worrying about whether or not we’ll be able to write all of the cheques by the end of the year,” he said. “If the stress over finances isn’t enough, tie in the guilt over whether the priority of the day should be family, farm or off-farm work.

“Finally, bring in the stigma,” he said. “It’s challenging enough in the general public, but so much more present in rural areas where the culture of the farmer is somehow supposed to be the strong and silent type no matter what.”

It has been a decade already since the Mental Health Commission of Canada spelled out the extent of the problem in Canadian society and proposed solutions. While organizations such as Farm Credit Canada and Do More Agriculture Foundation have made mental health of farmers a priority, the overall issue has received little more than lip service from governments.

Keith Currie, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, told the MPs that, “Ultimately, our goal is to collaborate in breaking down the barriers that exist for farmers in need — and from there, to foster the development of long-term mental health resiliency.”

While the issue has gained awareness, the barrier of stigma is still very much prevalent in rural communities, he said.

“The perception remains that mental health challenges are one’s own and not to be discussed openly,” he said.

“We can begin to break down this barrier with greater communication and awareness about mental health challenges within the farm community — starting the conversation and allowing individuals to comfortably seek help without fear of judgment.”

Currie noted there’s a barrier to accessing resources, particularly resources that are tailored to and understand agriculture, able to speak the same language to them.

“We need research, training and mental health advocacy throughout the whole agricultural system, which would include but not be limited to farm input suppliers, farm advisers and government inspection agents,” he said.

Mental health services for farmers have to be available all the time and not just during a crisis, he said, calling for a strategic, long-term, sustainable approach to tackling ongoing mental health issues.

Broaching farm mental health issues began with the Canadian Federation of Agriculture and has spread throughout agriculture organizations. Reaching the farm level is another matter, the committee has heard repeatedly.

The CFA has created The Brigid Rivoire Award for champions of agricultural mental health to be awarded annually in the memory of its former executive director to recognize an individual, organization, or group of individuals that has made outstanding contributions in raising awareness, addressing stigma, and supporting agricultural mental health in their local community.

Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada, said, farmers are facing risk and uncertainty like never before from Mother Nature to changing markets and regulations, many of which are outside of their control. Public trust and social licence are now putting more pressure on the farmers, she added.

“Stress is the human response to change, especially changes that cause worry, frustration, confusion and a sense of losing control,” she said. “Our farmers are incredibly stressed. Stress can burden us to the point where it threatens our physical and mental health.

She said this stress can have physical manifestations, and an emotional impact that can lead to risk-taking behaviour that can result in farm injuries.

“When it comes to farming, the effects of mental health go beyond the individual,” she said. “The business must keep going. The team must be led. The animals must be fed, crops managed, and the cows milked. We must consider not only the mental health of the farm manager but also that of the farm team as well as how the manager and team are equipped to support positive mental health.”

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