No one is saying farmers aren’t tough.
But when it comes to mental illness, it turns out they have the same vulnerabilities as everyone else – and more.
A mental health literacy training program and mental health emergency response model for Ontario farmers are being created now, following early results of a study that shows producers are experiencing problems on the job.
The study, led by University of Guelph population medicine professor Andria Jones-Bitton, reveals that stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout are all higher among farmers than among other populations
She and the Ontario Veterinary College AWAR2E group — an acronym for Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Research and Education — started out studying mental health among veterinarians. The scope of the problem grew as it became clear producers too had issues.
And now, after analyzing more than 1,100 responses nationwide to her online stress and resilience survey (conducted from last September to this January), she has data that shows significant levels of mental health problems exist among producers.
For example, 45 per cent of the respondents who participated in the survey were classified as having high stress.
Another 58 per cent were classified with varying levels of anxiety. And 35 per cent with depression.
Overall, that’s 2-4 times higher than farmers studied in the UK and Norway.
Other signs of mental health problems revealed by the survey are equally concerning to Jones-Bitton.
Significant numbers of farmers said they had high levels of emotional exhaustion (38 per cent) and cynicism (43 per cent). And resilience, popularly believed to be a strength among producers, was actually shown to be lower among two-thirds of the respondents than it is among a comparative US population.
“Some of the producer comments leave little doubt about the impact their job and culture is having on them,” she says. “One said, ‘We are not invincible, but we feel we must be’. Another said, ‘What makes me the most upset is that I have everything I dreamed of — love, family and a farm — and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad’.”
“We can do better by our producers,” Jones-Bitton says.
Indeed, in agriculture, a stigma — weakness, mainly — is associated with mental health treatment. So it followed that the survey showed 40 per cent of respondents said they’d feel uneasy getting professional help “because of what people might think.”
Another 31 per cent said seeking professional help could stigmatize a person’s life. Fewer than half believe there is adequate mental health support from the industry.
But producers haven’t thrown in the towel. For example, more than three-quarters said professional mental services can be helpful in times of struggle, and almost as many said they would seek out such help. Interestingly, about two-thirds said getting help does not constitute weakness.
Buoyed by this interest and enthusiasm for help, Jones-Bitton is starting to take some action. “There are positive attitudes among farmers about getting help, so that’s what we’re trying to do,” she says.
With support from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, she’s building a team of producers, industry, veterinarians and mental health professionals to create, deliver and evaluate a mental health literacy training program for farmers.
Part of this program will be designed to train people to recognize and respond to mental distress, and reduce stigma around mental health issues in Ontario’s agricultural sector.
As well, the team will create a mental health emergency response model. It’s a result of issues raised in the mental health survey and elsewhere about the impact of agricultural emergencies on producers.
Jones-Bitton says the way such emergencies affect livestock and the economy is well known. But that’s not the case when it comes to the effect of emergencies such as the PED virus and avian influenza outbreaks, which Ontario farmers lived through in the recently.
So, the mental health project she’s undertaking will address the experiences of farmers during agricultural emergencies, as well as everyday occupational stresses.
Plus, it will document help-seeking behaviours, motivations and barriers, and explore perceived ideals for mental health programming.
“We need to do something,” she says. “Farmers want help, and we’re going to find ways for them to receive it.”