Farmers Relieved Mental Health Issues on the Table: Coordinator

Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton

The final push is on this week to connect with farmers across Canada, for the first-ever national mental wellness survey of those who produce our food.

Back when this initiative started in the fall, survey coordinator Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton of the University of Guelph, said she hoped to have 1,000 farmers involved in the survey by the end of the year. That milestone was revised to the end of January, as its intake grew.

Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton

Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton

Jones-Bitton, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, passionately reached out to producer groups and the media, including RealAgriculture, to help her spread the word. Lately, even national and daily media have got onboard.

The twitter universe, in which agriculture is highly active, has joined the drive to the finish line.
“Please take time to do the survey on mental health in ag,” tweeted @JanineLunn on Wednesday. “There’s a lot at stake here; and it affects us all.”

By March, Jones-Bitton expects to be able to speak in concrete terms about the prevalence of, among other things, farmer depression, anxiety and resilience.

And based on her early impressions, the results will be eye opening.

For example, among the many producers she’s spoken to since the study began, she’s detected what she describes as a palpable sense of relief about the issue of mental health in agriculture being raised in an open forum.

“It’s kind of a big exhale, and a feeling of “oh, finally, we are going to start talking about it!” she says.

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She wonders: is that because mental health issues are something so many people have been dealing with, or at least know about, but no one’s been talking about?

With an estimated prevalence of one in five people in the general population alone, farmers and non-farmers alike are probably affected or know someone who has been affected by mental illness.

She also wonders if the study is now “opening the box,” as she says, so the agricultural sector can accept the problems, own them and do something about them.

That could very well be. In a very brief period of time, this study has mushroomed. It stemmed from an investigation of mental health issues facing just livestock veterinarians, based on problems Jones-Bitton and her colleagues had observed and in some cases personally experienced. In its infancy, Jones-Bitton envisioned it would focus on only livestock producers in Ontario.

But before long, as word got out, she was urged and inspired to broaden it to include crop producers too.

And finally, given interest from across the country, she and her team decided to open it up to all Canadian farmers.

Jones-Bitton hasn’t taken an in-depth look at all responses yet. But from the early glimpses at the opened-ended questions – the ones that ask how you feel, rather than yes-no-maybe tickboxes – she’s seeing evidence that farmers are feeling pressure from many avenues.

“One respondent’s comment stuck with me…’It feels like my entire way of life is under attack’,” she says. “Perhaps to farmers, the survey and news stories about it are helping to legitimize their feelings.”

This study has certainly caught the public’s imagination. People don’t typically think of farmers as having mental health problems. They’re seen, and widely depicted, as stoic, strong, able bodied and able minded.

But inside the farm community, the reality is different. There, it’s no secret that many producers struggle with mental health issues. Often, such cases are blamed on isolation, constant uncertainty and pressure owing to weather, markets and politics. As Jones-Bitton says, acknowledging personal struggles associated with mental health challenges is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness – if anything, it’s a sign of strength.

When her study wraps up, the entire story will be clearer. Then the real work of addressing the problem begins, such as creating helpful programs and approaches to specific situations. But you can’t address them until you understand them. Thanks to Jones-Bitton, agriculture is about to be informed

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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