Advocates try to address mental health for farmers as pandemic adds to stress

Published May 16, 2020 5:17 p.m. ET

Share this story:

Click to Expand

TORONTO -- Farmers. They often work in isolation, deal with unpredictable seasonal weather that could make or break their crop, animal disease outbreaks, trade issues, and more.

In recent months, farmers have seen the fruits of their labour wasted: millions and millions of litres of milk being dumped, giving away hundreds of thousands of pounds of potatoes for free or at a low price, and euthanizing thousands of chicks due to plunging demand.

From vegetable and fruit growers, to grain farmers and livestock, the state of mental health for farmers across every sector around the world has long been a concern, but COVID-19 has only exacerbated the crisis. In Canada, some advocates are trying to drive a national conversation about the issue to share and ease some of the burdens facing struggling farmers.

Amy Vanderheide runs a poultry and crop farm in Coldbrook, N.S., along with her husband and in-laws. The pandemic has cut the farm’s production by 15 per cent. It is a lot of pressure under any circumstance, but the pandemic has added another layer of stress - worries about staying healthy.

“For us, that means that's an empty barn, so we're paying for a farm that's not producing for us,” said Vanderheide.

“If one of us were out of the game due of illness our planting might not get done,our barn management would be harder to juggle."

Vanderheide also suffers from seasonal affective disorder, made worse by the pandemic, but says her network of friends and her ability to talk openly about these issues have helped.

“It could be a lot worse,” she said.

According to a national survey conducted by the University of Guelph between 2015 and 2016, farmers face higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and a greater risk of burnout than that of the general population. Forty-five per cent of farmers in Canada said they had high stress, while 58 per cent and 35 per cent met the classifications for anxiety and depression.

And it’s not just Canada. According to a Guardian newspaper report from 2017, an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days, while in the U.K., it’s one farmer a week. In France, it’s one every two days.

The University of Guelph survey and report outlined several policy recommendations for the government to improve mental health for Canadian farmers, including developing a national mental health strategy, with support and services tailored for the farming and agricultural community.

“It's really hard to reach out or to feel that it’s acceptable to say that you’re struggling with something,” said Megz Reynolds, a grain farmer from Saskatchewan, who is also a mental health advocate. She writes about the isolation and dark side of farming.

“I’ve shared struggles that I’ve gone through feeling like my only worth is in my life insurance policy, when we had bad years farming and I don’t know how we're going to pay the bills.”

But talking and reaching out is not something all farmers are comfortable doing.

“A farmer who is stoic that doesn't show signs of weakness and if you show signs of emotions, you are 'less' than, you are not a good farmer - and that's simply not true,” said Lesley Kelly, another farmer from Saskatchewan.

Reynolds and Kelly have helped open a channel for farmers to talk about fears, once considered taboo, through the non-profit charity called Do More Ag, which Kelly co-founded with three others. It’s bringing farmers together for a national conversation on the crisis, through public service announcements, videos, webinars, and online chats, where farmers are able to share their stories and receive advice on how to cope.

“My husband and I at the time were afraid for others to know, because of the stigma. We thought we were the only ones,” said Kelly. Through her charity, however, Kelly says thousands of people are reaching out to share their stories.

Read the original version