You can’t pour from an empty cup. Put another way, if you can’t take care of you, you can’t take care of others, including livestock.
The connection between farmers’ own mental wellness and livestock care is a direct link; in many cases of animal welfare complaints, the root cause is a stressed and/or mentally ill farmer. The link is so clear, veterinarians and livestock industry stakeholders are beginning to have conversations about “one welfare” — the concept that farmer welfare and animal welfare are really one and the same, because of the immense impact of farmer mental health on animal care.
What’s more, as Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton recently presented to the National Farm Animal Care Council, graphic and misleading “animal rights” campaigns purported to be about animal welfare, are actually doing more harm than good, because of the significant mental toll these attacks have on those caring for livestock.
But it’s not just animal rights extremists’ actions that can compromise farmers’ ability to maintain the high standards of care every farmer strives for. Outside pressure and scrutiny from perhaps well-meaning, but ill-informed groups or individuals can be stressful; trolling or goading on social media can be taxing and infuriating. Then there’s the full-on harassment that some farmers have faced from groups where their name and farm location have been shared publicly to make them a target.
Jones-Bitton says that through work done to gauge the mental wellness, resiliency, and stresses of farmers, one farmer related that as they were recovering from the devastation of a barn fire, they were subjected to being called murderers in their driveway by protesters.
“It’s not unreasonable to imagine that this would have a psychological toll on farmers,” she says. And it does.
Online bullying, animal rights extremists, and constant pressure has left many farmers feeling vilified and under attack, research suggests, and what many people don’t realize is that livestock producers consider it their duty to keep their animals as healthy as possible. To suggest otherwise, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, many farmers feel these are attacks of their dignity and honour.
Adding to this stress is the growing threat of trespassing and break-and-enter tactics that are meant to instil fear and intimidate farmers on their own farms, putting the health and welfare of their children and families at risk, and risking the health and safety of their animals, too.
Jones-Bitton says that a healthy mental state includes someone feeling they are contributing positively to our world and society, that that person has meaning and purpose. These attacks strip much of that away, with feelings of distrust and misleading information. This leaves farmers defending their culture, identity, legacy, and their family, and some farmers noted that they didn’t feel supported in this defence.
As one farmer noted: “We could do a better job of taking care of the people who are trying to feed us.”
We know that there are both short and long term effects of chronic stress, and that mental stress can have a very physical manifestation over time, including major health issues as well as increased incidences of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
To bring this all back to One Welfare, animal neglect and welfare issues are highly associated with preceding social problems, incidence of addiction, and financial issues, often associated with or brought on by mental health issues.
For someone under chronic stress, who is experiencing fatigue or exhaustion, or panic/anxiety, and possibly burn out, it’s unlikely we’re able to motivate someone to make improvements to animal welfare, Jones-Bitton says. In incidences where we notice someone isn’t caring for their animals like they normally would, we need to focus on taking care of the person too, not just the livestock.
Jones-Bitton is just one part of a growing movement to move a national mental health strategy forward for farmers and rural communities. She’d also like to see more services (online, by phone) made available and some means of a relief network built for farmers facing crisis. Farmers often don’t have the space (mentally and/or physically) to bounce back or heal from adversity, trauma, or stress. We need a strategy to better support farmer mental health and resilience, she says.