NSFA members hear stark stats on farmers’ mental health

by Dan Woolley

FF Jan. 19 Andria Jones-Bitton Headshot.jpg

Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton knows well the many sources of on-farm mental health distress.

She is a veterinarian, epidemiologist, and associate professor at the University of Guelph’s population medicine department. She also heads a research team examining the multiple roots of farmer psychological stress. They include weather and climate change, farm labour, finances, government regulatory burden, family problems and succession planning, threats to supply management, social isolation, public scrutiny, and activism.

Jones-Bitton, who spoke to Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture AGM attendees in late November from the University of Guelph via Skype, said farmers feel under attack by activists with causes, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) organization questioning animal welfare, and those who suggest dairy products cause autism, among others.

 She said the reactions of the farmers her team interviewed varied, from one farmer who said he was losing money while working 400 hours a month feeding people who think farmers are “trying to kill” them to another who said the farming lifestyle and culture is under attack and that we need to start promoting trust in farmers.

Her research team conducted a national survey of more than 1,100 farmers from September 2015 to February 2016. The conclusion? “We have a problem,” said Jones-Bitton.

Of the survey respondents, 45 percent reported a high level of stress from factors such as financial pressure, lack of family support, lack of support from their industry, stress from their commodity (a hog farmer), and loss or lack of emotional resilience resulting in anxiety and depression. Nearly 60 percent of producers reported degrees of anxiety, with 35 percent experiencing various levels of depression.

“Our farmers are not as resilient as we may think,” said Jones-Bitton, adding that two-thirds of them have levels of psychological resilience below the average of the U.S. general population.

She said feelings of resilience increase with age, good health, and the support of friends, while depression reduces psychological resilience.

Jones-Bitton reported that her team was overwhelmed by the responses from some farmers, such as: “I am destroying myself,” “I am just trying to keep plugging along until death,” “It is a wonder we don’t off ourselves more often,” and “What makes me the most upset is I have everything I ever wanted, the love of family, a farm, and yet …”

Many farmers struggle with stress factors, some of which are beyond their control, said Jones-Bitton, adding that there’s a need for balance between boredom and burnout, as well as a need to energize focus and motivation in a farmer’s life, as high stress and poor health prevent their optimal professional performance.

“We can expect a negative impact on their families, their animals, production, and profit, and their retention in farming,” she said.

 Succession planning is also an issue when children see the negative impacts of farm-related stress on their farming parents, said Jones-Bitton.

 She sees a need for a national farm mental health strategy with more research and development, better access to support services, and training programs to help farmers build their mental resilience.

“We can teach resilience and practise resilience,” said Jones-Bitton. “We can’t do much about some of the stress factors such as weather.” 

She said there’s also a need for more mental health literacy, so her team has developed a specific program for agriculture titled “In the Know,” which she expects will be released early in the summer of 2019 to teach farmers coping skills to deal with stress and let them know they’re not alone, and also remove the stigma from mental health problems.

 “We need to help make or build strategies for wellness,” said Jones-Bitton. “Wellness is being aware of ourselves as whole people, (having) satisfying work and play, relationships that give joy, a healthy body, a healthy living environment, and happiness at least some of the time.”

She said it is a conscious, deliberate process that requires work but also brings better health, productivity, and profitability.

 Faith Matchett, Farm Credit Canada’s vice-president of operations in Eastern Ontario and Atlantic Canada, added that the figures on farmer mental health are not encouraging, with a lack of respite for them from work and a stigma about asking for help.

 Matchett urged struggling farmers to seek counselling, noting that the FCC has a pamphlet titled “Rooted in Strength” that has contact numbers to call.

 “There is always someone to talk to,” said Farm Safety Nova Scotia manager Carolyn Van Den Heuvel.