Agriculture is a stressful occupation, with mental health impacts that tend to exceed those of the average population. Dr. Greg Gibson, a registered clinical psychologist who practices in rural Manitoba, says the number of farmers and ranchers affected by depression, anxiety and stress is often under-reported, partly because of the attached stigma.
Gibson cites a 2016 survey by the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph that polled more than 1,100 Canadian farmers about issues related to stress, anxiety and depression. Of those polled, 60 per cent of farmers said they experienced anxiety at significant levels, 35 per cent suffered from depression, and 45 per cent reported that they experienced high stress.
“These numbers were all higher than rates reported by the general population, and about two to five times higher than those reported by farmers in the United Kingdom and in Norway,” says Gibson.
In the survey farmers listed things that they have no control over as stressors, including crop and livestock disease, and inclement and changing weather, Gibson notes. Isolation was also a stressor.
“The biggest one was shifting economics and significant financial burden,” he says.
Adding to those stressors are the changes to the agriculture industry, Gibson says. Large operations require a new set of skills and more preparation and training, he adds. Plus, the multi-generational aspect of farming is changing for many.
“Historically, being able to have the family maintain the farm was a huge asset. Today, many children who grow up on a farm are leaving home, looking for other careers,” says Gibson. Having to hire help is a financial and mental stress, he adds.
A certain amount of stress can be healthy, keeping us on our toes, says Amanda Douglas, a registered social worker with Farm Stress Line Mobile Crisis Services in Regina, Sask. Short-term stress can be readily handled by the way our bodies are programmed, Douglas says. But long-term or excessive stress can be damaging, hindering the immune system and the mind.
“This is just because of the way we evolved, to help us cope with threats to safety,” says Douglas, who grew up on a mixed farm. “But today the threats to our safety are often mental rather than physical.”
Coping with calving problems or machinery breakdowns don’t require adrenalin, shallow breathing or an increased heart rate and blood pressure, she adds.
“A panic attack, with systems shutting down, is due to the way our bodies evolved,” says Douglas. “We may not be acknowledging these threats to our ‘safety’ early enough to be able to deal with them properly.”
Depression is a real problem which may manifest as low mood, changes in sleeping (too much or too little), changes in weight or appetite, inability to experience pleasure, and withdrawal from family and friends. Other signs include loss of energy, trouble concentrating, feelings of hopelessness, anger or rage and irritability.
“In families this can sometimes result in domestic violence,” Gibson says. Some people may withdraw into substance abuse, he adds. It can lead to alienation, family breakups and multiple problems that would not have existed otherwise.
It can also lead to suicidal thoughts. “The rate of suicide among farmers is higher than in the general population,” Gibson says.
Many farmers find negative life events difficult to handle, Gibson says. They want to do things on their own and be effective, he adds.
“They are conscientious about their work and have great capacity to persevere in the face of adversity because this is how they’ve managed to survive in this lifestyle,” says Gibson.
“But when stressors are beyond their control, most farmers just work harder and work themselves to death. They keep the problems to themselves rather than reaching out for support.”
Douglas says the reluctance to seek help is due to many reasons. Some may not have a backup plan or people to step in and do the job.
“Sometimes it’s a lack of education, but I think many producers feel that if they slow down to look after themselves, they are neglecting their job,” she says.
Producers may attach shame and guilt to depression, as they think they have failed. Family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, clergy and doctors should be able to identify risk factors. Isolation and withdrawal can be damaging, so Gibson says the first important step is to encourage this person to reach out for help.
“It may not be a psychologist like myself, but could be friends, family or neighbours. Clergy or family doctors are often the most utilized resources,” says Gibson.
If friends and family suspect someone is depressed, they should focus on asking, listening and getting help, says Gibson.
“Ask how that person is doing and feeling,” says Gibson. “Ask point blank if things are so bad that they’ve had thoughts of ending their life.”
It’s important to listen to what they say about the way they feel, without judgment or trying to solve their problems, he adds. Listen to descriptions of problems to find where their frustration and stress might be coming from. Don’t jump in with advice right away.
“It’s important to simply allow them a time to talk. Even though there are trained professionals who do this, they are generally not the first ones who get a chance to help,” says Gibson.
The troubled person will usually open up first to a friend or family member. That good friend or family member may feel ill-equipped to help so the next step is to get help.
“Let that person know you care, and talk to them about resources available within the community,” says Gibson. Identify the crisis intervention services available in the area. For example, Manitoba has a suicide line, crisis services and a rural and northern stress line for folks who need it. Another option is to follow up with a doctor or clergy member. Religious organizations within a community can be a valuable asset for assistance, says Gibson.
“If there are mental health workers available, try to get that person to seek help, then follow up to see how things went — or accompany them to the nearest hospital or call 911 if they are thinking about taking their own life and risk is imminent,” he says.
Saskatchewan’s farm stress line is confidential and available 24 hours a day, says Douglas. A person doesn’t have to be suicidal to call in.
“We want people to call before things get really bad, or if they are just wondering if something is truly an issue,” she explains.
Saskatchewan residents can also get in touch with a therapist primarily through email or phone, says Douglas.
“That person can help you work through modules online that are the same ones you’d go through if you were doing cognitive behavioural therapy in person-to-person treatment,” she says. “This is handy for rural folks who have excessive demands on their time.”
Family doctors can also connect people with resources in the area, says Douglas. “Most regions have rural mental health clinics. Counseling from a mental health worker in one of these regions is free, covered under our health benefits. There are also mental health counselors who travel rurally.”
Sometimes medication is needed as well, says Douglas. A doctor isn’t going to prescribe medication if it’s not needed, but depression and anxiety do have a biological basis, she says. Medication can be used to manage symptoms so a person can then benefit from counseling and exercise, she adds.
It’s important that people who are burned out and overwhelmed with feelings of depression and anxiety avoid isolation. That means seeking professional help or even just trying to connect more with other people, Gibson says.
“Just being able to reconnect with people through small talk or asking how their day is going, can help you get past that isolation,” he says.
Tips for taking care of yourself
Taking care of yourself can head off problems. That includes things such as doing your best to sleep sufficiently, eating healthy and not over- or under-eating.
“It’s also important to avoid the chemical haze, not overindulging in alcohol, cigarettes, drugs or other forms of escape and self-medication,” Gibson says.
Producers should also try to balance work and play. Gibson acknowledges that there are times producers need to push on, such as in the middle of harvest or while calving in bad weather.
“In those moments work takes priority, but remind yourself that you need to find a chance to take a break,” he says. Take those opportunities, even if they are just small interludes, rather than continually pushing ahead.
“People say they don’t have time to slow down or take a walk, but you can’t afford not to,” says Douglas. You’ll be more motivated, productive and focused if you take care of yourself, she says.
While taking a mini-vacation, take a real break and turn off the cell phone. Gibson acknowledges that’s difficult for producers because of their strong work ethic and because so much has to be done.
Douglas also suggests spending time with friends and family.
“This could mean playing a board game with your kids, making an extra trip to the grain elevator to talk with the guys there — trying to socialize a little more,” she says. “Some people subconsciously do this. They have these coping skills but don’t recognize these as tools that benefit their mental health.”
There are also helpful self-care and habit-tracking apps, says Douglas. Her favourite app is Pacifica, as it tracks moods and allows journaling. People can also use fitness-tracking technology to become aware of their heart rates and how many steps they’re taking each day, she says.
Spending time with animals, whether it’s moving cattle, riding a horse or taking the dog for a walk, can also help, she says. Animals move at a different pace, allowing us to slow our lives and immerse ourselves in what’s natural. Changing our environment or our speed can get some endorphins going in our bodies, helping us feel better, she adds.
“Everyone’s recipe for mental wellness/mental health is unique to them and we need equally creative suggestions or solutions for addressing those,” says Douglas.
Gibson suggests thinking of yourself as a vehicle that needs maintenance.
“You need opportunities to put gas in your tank and keep the engine well oiled. If you don’t, eventually the engine will seize, or you’ll run out of gas. You maintain farm vehicles — you also need to maintain yourself,” says Gibson.
Saskatchewan producers can call the Farm Stress Line at 1-800-667-4442 or visit www.mobilecrisis.ca. In Manitoba call 1-866-367-3276 or visit supportline.ca. Albertans can call 1-877-303-2642. The Canadian Mental Health Association also has offices across Canada. Visit cmha.ca and click on “Find Your CMHA” at the top of the page.
Heather Smith Thomas raises beef cattle with her husband on their ranch in Idaho. She also writes articles for ag publications as well as books on horse care and cattle management.