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Being Good Neighbours

H

ow are you?

Try counting sometime how often in a day you exchange that greeting with family, friends, colleagues and neighbours.

And then think about how often you listen – really listen – to the answer.

If Gerry Friesen is right, and we suspect he is, there’s more than a few of us living in rural Manitoba who, if truth be told, are putting a brave face on the fact that we are feeling rotten inside.

Farming is a tough business. Aside from the relentlessness of the job itself, there is the uncertainty and the constant reminder that you can do most things right and still have things go horribly wrong due to factors beyond your control.

Farmers are no more likely than workers in other sectors to suffer from mental health breakdowns, but the isolated nature of their work and cultural tradition in rural communities make it harder to identify and address.

The mental health side of farming doesn’t get a lot of attention in policy and economic talks, even though the emotional resilience of farm operators is pivotal to their business success. You can buy insurance and participate in risk management programs to protect your farm against crop failures, but there is nothing – short of a holiday in Mexico – that serves as a mental health insurance plan.

Victims are often adept at hiding their mental exhaustion, stress and yes, even depression. Many choose to deny it for fear of being seen as weak. That forces it to express itself through what psychologists call “acting out” behaviour. These behaviours, which can include alcohol or drug abuse, workaholism, or erratic or impulsive actions, are not only destructive to the individual, but also the people around them.

Yet the people around them can be woefully inept at recognizing these symptoms, and even if they do, they are often loath to confront them. We convince ourselves it’s none of our business; their family will take care of them. It’s someone else’s responsibility.

Yet the reality is, families are often too close to the individual and too traumatized by what is taking place to take action. They are too busy trying to keep things together, in some cases becoming both the scapegoat and the enabler.

It is often others in a community, friends, neighbours, or service providers – such as the vet or the fertilizer dealer – who can be the first to offer assistance. Often, the first step is to offer an understanding ear.

By exposing his own experiences with anxiety and depression (see page 28), Friesen is hoping to draw others in Manitoba’s rural community into a conversation about how to identify the symptoms and help people confront a sickness that, if left untreated, can be debilitating and even fatal.

Friesen’s decision to tell his story at Manitoba Ag Days workshops in Brandon and a series of other farm meetings around the province is an important initiative in destigmatizing a serious health issue.

Rural folks are famous for rallying around a community member who suffers an injury or critical illness. An individual’s decision to seek treatment for depression is no less of a cause for neighbourly concern and support.

In a similar vein

The vigorous debate over stubble burning at last week’s Keystone Agricultural Producers annual meeting reinforces the public relations dilemma this issue represents for this province’s entire farming community.

It was a sad day indeed when the strawboard fibre plant at Elie failed. It was an option that offered farmers an outlet for unwanted straw, while providing the marketplace with an environmentally green construction material. But it’s not the first time a product was simply ahead of its time.

If the straw must be burnt, at the very least it should be done in a plant that can control the contamination while capturing and distributing the energy.

The fact is, no industry – no matter what the economic justification – would be permitted to pollute the air over an urban area in the way this farming practice continues to do almost every year. As well, the impact on the neighbours’ rural towns and residents, although smaller in population, cannot be ignored.

Aside from the human health concern is the environmental issue. How can farmers or the provincial government pretend they are concerned about curtailing greenhouse gases when the industry literally pours carbon into the atmosphere?

The economic gains from burning crop residues are measurable and they are relatively small. There are rare occasions when conditions make burning residue a practical option, but for the most part, this is a practice of convenience.

By comparison, the public relations damage, which although difficult to quantify, is undeniably huge.

In the meantime, the province is considering an outright ban. But even if it does continue to allow the practice, farmers would be wise to start developing alternatives. [email protected]

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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