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‘Farmer mental health requires a different response': University of Guelph study shows poor mental health in farmers

·4 min read

New Dundee turkey farmer Mark Reusser accepts that farming is a career filled with uncertainty, but he says a global pandemic has exacerbated that level of uncertainty, leading to high levels of stress and anxiety.

“Farming has always been a stressful occupation due to the fact that the income we make is based on things we can’t control, like the weather and price margins,” says Reusser. “But COVID-19 has resulted in a general uncertainty with regards to how we are going to make money and uncertainty in regards to how that will affect prices, crops and the whole supply system. It has exacerbated the problem of anxiety amongst farmers.”

A new study from the University of Guelph shows an 80 per cent increase in poor mental health among farmers. The study also shows a tremendous increase in male suicide in rural and farming communities resulting from pre-existing mental health conditions that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Cambridge farmer John Bos says that COVID-19 has affected a lot of the practical parts of farming, resulting in additional stress.

“COVID-19 has added a whole level of uncertainty,” says Bos. “There’s the escalating cost of equipment and replacing parts, and input costs are rising. We’re also seeing huge labour shortages which has added a level of stress to getting crops harvested and products to market.”

University of Guelph professor Leith Deacon, who conducted the research, says that when it comes to mental health in the farming community, there’s a unique challenge since people often live at the place where they work.

“Farmer mental health requires a different response because more often than not this is a vocation for these individuals, they live and work at their place of residence, and it is difficult to have separation between the two,” says Deacon. “The key, though, is that response plans, programs and policies aimed at those in the agricultural community are reflective of the realities that they currently face.”

Brant County beef farmer Sandra Vos says that mental health is a well-hidden concern in the farming community. She also cites the way COVID-19 has changed the social aspect of farming as an additional pressure impacting mental health.

“It’s the same stigma that has been with mental health issues for centuries. Mental health is not like a broken leg,” says Vos. “You can’t see that people aren’t well and that they’re struggling. There’s a stigma that people with mental health issues might look like they’re lazy, not hard-working.”

The idea of farmers being hard-working, independent individuals is pervasive, says Reusser, and it can often result in farmers bottling up mental health issues.

“Farmers tend to be entrepreneurial business people who like to look after themselves, and unfortunately sometimes when you are more independent, that can make anxiety that much more apparent,” says Reusser. “In the past, farmers have not admitted that they have issues of anxiety and stress.”

But Reusser says that the pressures of COVID-19 have prompted more farmers to seek help. A number of farming and agricultural societies have put together resources to assist farmers. The Ontario Federation of Agriculture lists a number of resources on their website.

The Farmers’ Toolbox, developed by the Listowel Agricultural Society, features video clips of farmers who moved from feelings of hopelessness to seeking help. In partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture offers farmer mental health training in the form of half-day training sessions. There are also directories of therapists who have farming backgrounds and experience in the industry.

Reusser agrees that more farmers seeking help is a great thing.

“There’s no shame in admitting that you are dealing with stress and anxiety,” says Reusser. “There’s no shame in seeking help. If there’s something I could say to farmers, go seek help.”

STORY BEHIND THE STORY: When a University of Guelph study was released saying that there had been an 80 per cent increase in poor mental health in the farming community, reporter Genelle Levy decided to get firsthand experience from farmers in Waterloo Region.

Genelle Levy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cambridge Times

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