Canadian farmers are among the most vulnerable to stress, anxiety, burnout and depression, according to early results of an online mental health survey done by researchers at University of Guelph.
They experience these symptoms in numbers higher than comparative groups, including those in the U.K. and Norway, where similar studies have been done, said Andria Jones-Bitton, a professor in the department of population medicine. She analyzed responses made by 1,100 farmers surveyed between September 2015 and this January across Canada.
Some of their comments leave little doubt about the impact their work and culture is having on them, says Jones-Bitton, who is also an epidemiologist and a veterinarian.
“One said, ‘We are not invincible, but we feel we must be’. Another said, ‘What makes me the most upset is that I have everything I dreamed of — love, family and a farm — and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad,’”said Jones-Bitton.
Their responses to the survey indicate high levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism, with results also showing 45 per cent experiencing high stress. Another 58 per cent were classified with varying levels of anxiety and 35 per cent with depression.
Those findings place Canadian farmers uniquely more vulnerable to mental distress, and less resilient to those in other parts of the world where similar psychological studies have been done, said Jones-Bitton.
She said she isn’t surprised by any of those findings, given what we know about pressures on the farm community. But what does stand out in these responses is that even while mental health struggles can still carry a stigma, farmers do also say they’d seek help if they needed it.
Forty per cent of those surveyed said they’d feel uneasy about getting professional help ‘because of what people might think ’and 31 per cent said seeking help could stigmatize a person’s life, but more than three-quarters also said professional mental services can be helpful in times of struggle, and almost as many said they would seek out such help.
That’s the positive message coming from this, she said.
“So many people indicated that they would seek help for mental health if they were worried or stressed and that it didn’t make them a weak person,” she said.
“I am very happy to hear people reported they were open to getting help if they found themselves in need of it.”
More open to help
Jones-Bitton said that willingness to get help likely stems from society in general being more open to talking about mental health and the importance of getting help when needed.
“It was the proverbial elephant in the room and nobody was really talking about it,” she said. “I think as a society as a whole we’re speaking about mental health more and we’re recognizing it’s just another type of illness that our society experiences, just like physical illness, and there shouldn’t be any shame or discrimination as a result of it.
“It’s a great sign that producers are talking about it more.”
But where help is to be found by those needing and looking for it is another matter. The research also reveals that fewer than half of the farmers surveyed believe they have adequate mental health supports.
Jones-Bitton said she will need to look more closely at farmers’s responses to questions about what resources they think should be in place.
“Part of our next phase of the research is looking at what resources producers want and need and what would they be likely use.”
Jones-Bitton said she has seen mention in the survey of a need for confidential help lines producers can call. Those don’t exist everywhere, she said. She was not aware of any operating in Ontario, she said, but said one program that is widely recognized in the farm community is the Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Supports Services. It began as a confidential telephone counselling service for farmers in the mid-1990s and today offers a variety of programs to rural and remote populations in Manitoba. The program is funded by Manitoba Health.
“We’re still looking into what supports are available across the country, but my understanding from the look we’ve done so far is that Manitoba is far ahead of the rest of us in terms of supports offered to farmers,” she said.
Another program is Saskatchewan’s Mobile Crisis Services, which rolled out the Saskatchewan Farm Stress Line under its umbrella in 2012. It also offers confidential telephone counselling services and is accessible to the farm community 24 hours a day seven days a week.
In Ontario, meanwhile, Jones-Bitton is now building a team of producers, industry representatives, veterinarians and mental health professionals to create, deliver and evaluate a mental health literacy training program for farmers to help more recognize and respond to mental distress.
The focus of this work is on Ontario’s agricultural sector. Jones-Bitton said the hope is that ultimately this could expand across the country.
“I do think we need a systematic program for our producers,” she said. “These results are describing that we do have issues with mental illnesses in the farming population at levels that are considered to be higher than normal. I think there’s a sizable population in our country that is perhaps in need of help and in need of more resources.
“The survey indicates they’re wanting more resources.”