Government puts spotlight on mental health in agricultural sector

Debt, isolation among stressors, but resources available for farmers
By John Dujay
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/13/2019
Tractor
A shortage of workers is one of the many stressors experienced by Canadian farmers, leading to mental health issues. Credit: Chukov (Shutterstock)

For Adelle Stewart, life on a ranch in Saskatchewan can be highly stressful.

“When you wake up and you go outside and you have a plan to do x, y, z and you have a fence down and the animals are gone, or you have a hailstorm roll through and everything that you have planned for that day could be catastrophically changed for the worse… you have to continue to adjust to that,” said Stewart, executive director of the Do More Agriculture Foundation in Saskatoon, Sask. 

The stress and mental health challenges of life on a farm were recently recognized nationally by the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, which issued the report Mental Health: A Priority for Our Farmers in May.

For the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) in Ottawa, it’s about time the government is putting a spotlight on farmers’ mental health.

“It’s really important and really timely that conversation is happening… it’s certainly something that people need to feel comfortable talking about,” said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, CAHRC’s executive director.

“There has been, in the past, reluctance in the industry, because it can be seen as a sign of weakness to indicate that… somebody is struggling. And instead (it) needs to be seen as a sign of strength that people say, ‘Wait a second, I need some help here,’” she said.

“It’s happening in the broader community of business in Canada and it’s really important that it’s happening in the agricultural industry because the prevalence of stress and mental health concern is so high.”

Several stressors

Farming is hard work, with debt, long days, loneliness and stress all factors, said the report:

“Farmers have to deal with many factors outside their control, such as unpredictable weather, government regulation and market volatility which are often major stressors. As a result, many farmers struggle with depression or other mental health problems. Some even go as far as suicide.”

Farmers also have to deal with a shortage of workers.

“The industry has been facing a labour shortage across many years that is only getting worse. It is very difficult for producers in the industry to access workers when they need them,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst. “Sitting with vacant positions is quite stressful.”

For Lloyd Longfield, a Guelph, Ont., MP, listening to farmers talking about stressors on the farm during the public meeting process was “tough to take.” 

“The testimonies we heard were unlike anything we’ve ever heard in a committee that I’ve been involved with; they were very raw. It was tough to hear some of the stories because they were so personal,” he said.

“Quite often in committees, we talk at a fairly high level about policies and programs and strategies. But this was talking directly to people that had experienced challenges in mental health. So that made it quite different for us.”

Evolving stigma

The issue of mental health hasn’t been addressed in such a meaningful way in the past, according to the committee, mainly due to a continuing stigma about self-reporting, which  included “building capacity in mental health awareness and prevention” for farmers among its recommendations.

This stigma was addressed by many participants at the committee hearings, said Longfield.

“Farmers have to tough it out through different weather events or different things that can hurt their business, and we saw them speaking about mental health the same sort of way in that they just have to tough it through — instead of ‘Where do you go for support in the first place?’”

But the stigma is changing, according to Andria Jones-Bitton, associate professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, citing a survey of Canadian farmers the school did in 2016 which found 45 per cent of respondents reported high stress levels, 58 per cent had anxiety and 35 per cent suffered from depression.

“Two-thirds of the participants said that seeking professional help for mental health could be very helpful and that they would do that if they were struggling,” she said.

“Groups like Do More Agriculture Foundation have been increasing the awareness of mental health in agriculture. We’re as a society starting to look at mental health differently and to stigmatize it less.”

One concern is that farmers’ resilience is actually lower than the population norm, said Jones-Bitton, and resilience helps people “bounce back from stress” and “potentially even grow from that stress.”

To overcome mental health challenges, it’s about building up that resiliency in farmers and ranchers, according to Stewart.

“A farmer producer who has a really high level of resiliency — and they face drought or flood or disease… they’ve been able to come out ahead. (But) it can be hard to look with empathy at a neighbour who had the same weather patterns, or the same disease, or any of those things. And (they think) ‘Well, I did it, why can’t you just suck it up?’”

Alleviating disruption

The report’s other recommendations include the federal government reviewing audit processes to cut down on stress and disruption, investing in groups that provide mental health help and encouraging the business partners of farmers to identify signs of psychological disorders.

Another one of the recommendations calls for government to “engage with farmers and agricultural stakeholder groups to develop public awareness campaigns and strategies to combat the growing incidence of cyberbullying, intimidation, and threats targeted at Canada’s agricultural workers.”

The University of Guelph found that animal-welfare activists were targeting farmers at home.

“There’s people who have made it their business to scrutinize the farm or to engage in animal activism, for example. These things have a big impact on the farmer,” said Jones-Bitton.

Advice for HR

The CAHRC provides an online toolkit for those in agriculture, with one component around workplace wellness, ensuring that “people understand that they have a legal obligation to support the mental health of their workers and you need to be compliant with human rights legislation, federally and provincially,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.

“That’s especially important, given that the industry includes sometimes long hours, sometimes isolation, sometimes extensive pressures around the fluctuations in prices and labour availability and businesses are challenging. As a business owner, one has to take good care of oneself, in order to manage all of that stress, and manage your own mental health to ensure that you’re still well to do your job and also to manage and support your workers.”

Social media has also helped farmers escape the isolation of working alone in remote areas, said farmer Sean Stanford, in talking to the standing committee.

“I have learned a lot and made many connections using social media and the internet. Twitter has been a huge help for me to find many resources, links and friends to help me through the tough times.”

To help food producers keep connected, the committee recommended the government “accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet infrastructure in Canada’s rural and remote regions.”

The internet has, in some cases, replaced the previous way that farmers would get together after work, according to Longfield.

“Farmers used to go to the coffee shop at the crossroads and sit down and talk about the day and what they were experiencing and what kind of challenges they’re getting with weeds or whatever else,” he said. “Now, they do a lot of those talks on social media.”

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