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Linking mental health and animal welfare

As a veterinary social worker, Erin Wasson sees the effects of mental health struggles on people and their animals

Erin Wasson’s social work career started out fairly conventionally, as she worked with children, youth, the elderly and people with disabilities. But a decision to upgrade her education led her to a new field, working with people who care for animals.

While completing a graduate degree, Wasson met the deans from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Regina’s faculty of social work. They were looking to create a veterinary social work program.

“Because of my connection with horses and familiarity with livestock and the farming lifestyle, they thought I could relate to large animal production,” says Wasson, who grew up near Saskatoon, Sask.

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In September 2014, Wasson was hired to create and run the new program. While creating the program, she noticed differences between the Saskatchewan program and other veterinary social work programs.

“Most veterinary social workers are well-connected with small animal owners and horse owners, but not very many working with livestock producers and food animal issues. When I started working here, the food animal veterinarians decided to include me,” says Wasson.

With help from the dean of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, she has provided outreach veterinary social work services, supporting her work and her boots-on-the-ground philosophy. Today she runs the veterinary social work program at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

The reality on the ground

Rural social work is a difficult challenge. Farmers and ranchers don’t connect with social workers when things are going well.

“We only get a call when things are a wreck, but this is also a time when people are really vulnerable,” she says.

Thus it is very important to take a gentle and caring approach. Wasson tries to connect with people and avoid making them feel awkward or that they have to talk about their feelings in depth. Instead, they talk about the circumstances the producer is managing. Wasson says she’ll talk about deep stuff if the producer wants to talk about it, but she doesn’t force it.

“I let that happen naturally as we build trust. I don’t bring a person into my office and say, ‘I know that all your cows died from grain overload and how does that make you feel?’”

A herd of cattle can represent a lifetime’s work and passion for producers who have spent decades developing genetics.
photo: Pamela D. McAdams/Getty Images

Wasson’s goal is to be a bridge and support for the producer and the other people they have to deal with, which may include veterinarians, the Ministry of Agriculture or enforcement agencies, she explains.

There are several scenarios that might require Wasson’s expertise. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture’s surveillance veterinarians might alert her to a natural disaster so that she can help producers deal with the aftermath.

“A couple years ago, for instance, we had big fires in the southern part of the province and at least six rural municipalities affected. Many producers and veterinarians had acute stress disorder-like reactions, as you would expect when livelihoods, lives and farms were threatened by something so out of their control — and which happened so quickly and was so scary.”

So many people were affected by those fires that Wasson couldn’t do it all herself, so she contacted local mental health agencies to pitch in. She also talked to reeves from the rural municipalities about getting information out to people, and sent material to local papers and farm publications.

“Aside from the farm stress line, there’s not many ways to help support these producers and farming families; there are many barriers that get in the way of accessing support in their own communities,” says Wasson.

Another scenario Wasson encounters is a producer who is a bit older and doesn’t have much help on the ranch. The producer may be divorced or widowed, may not have children, or may have grown children who aren’t involved in the ranch.

“As a person gets older, it’s harder to do everything by yourself. This might be someone who for many years had a really successful farm or cattle operation and now finds himself in a position where his health and the farm or ranch is failing and the animal protection officers are at the door,” says Wasson. Grief and depression can also be factors, she adds.

There are many situations in which a farmer or rancher might feel that everything is against him and out of his control.

“We don’t want to criminalize people who are unwell, but there needs to be an intervention of some kind. It’s a delicate dance to handle these cases,” she says.

While there’s a long history of “stockmen and animal protection people hating each other, with a lot of mistrust and fear,” Wasson says that the reality is that they are the only people who can legally get on site and then link that producer with other services.

Once a producer has become isolated from friends and neighbours, they can’t help. In those circumstances, Wasson thinks it’s good that most animal protection officers have a new approach.

“Most of them don’t want to charge anyone with animal neglect or abuse. They just want to help fix the situation and put something in place to give things a chance to change. They might feel that the farmer isn’t doing well in terms of physical or mental health and call someone like me and try to get him connected to supports rather than just going in there and seizing all his cows,” says Wasson.

“This could be a negative opening; I don’t want to be brought in with the heavies because then I become one of the enemies,” Wasson adds.

In those cases, Wasson tells the producer that she’s only there because people are worried about them, and that she is there to help. Whatever is happening with the farm or herd is a symptom of something else that’s going on in that producer’s life.

“I try to help that person start thinking about how to get his farm working again. If there has been something really traumatic in his life, I try to help him learn how to manage the symptoms associated with trauma, in a way that’s in line with what he can do,” says Wasson.

“Perhaps I am out in his field and a bunch of his cows are dying and it’s a horrible situation where he’s having to shoot more cows every day. When he goes back to his house he is still reminded of all that trauma and can’t get away from it,” she says.

Wasson talks to the producer about ways to cope while he is putting down the animals.

They also talk about how to manage the imagery.

“After the cows stop dying and the ones that have died have been picked up or removed, I try to help him deal with all the destruction, death and horror that he witnessed.”

This can haunt people forever if they don’t get help. Some people can box it away and leave it be, says Wasson, but most people need help — at least at the front end — to get past this experience. Such an experience is devastating not only for the business but also for that person’s feelings of self-worth and self-esteem. There may also be a lot of guilt.

Wasson says that in her experience, there are usually several things going on in these animal welfare cases. Usually the farmer or rancher didn’t intentionally hurt livestock.

“There’s often a combination of factors such as a disease situation in the herd that was very hard to manage and it was going to take a lot of time (and expense) to get a handle on it. Especially if the person doesn’t want to ship cows because they are sick; it’s not ethical to take them to an auction. Or perhaps it becomes very expensive to treat them.

“There are also cases when someone has an accident and can’t get out there to take care of the cattle, or the crops fail and they can’t feed the cattle. On a bad year the cows might not have enough protein and the next calving season is a wreck. There all kinds of challenges.”

Need for education and resources

Wasson is passionate about strengthening mental health services and finding support for producers who suffer emotional problems. It’s an area that has been underserved for too long, she says, and it takes everyone to change it.

“The best thing we can do is have communities arm themselves with good education and the ability to tackle these things. The more we start talking about this, the more likely that people will access support because it will be considered more normal, just like going to see your family doctor if you are physically sick or injured.”

Sometimes seeking help in a producer’s home community isn’t an option, either because there isn’t a social worker, or the person is unwilling to go to anyone in their own community. In those cases, Wasson tries to find a social worker in a neighbouring community. That way, the visit to the social worker can be inconspicuous, she says.

Online counselling and phone-in counselling are also options.

“If someone can operate a new tractor, they can figure out how to access internet counselling. With all the bells and whistles and computers that many people are using on the farm these days, such as apps to monitor what’s going on with their crops, they can find a counsellor who could help.”

She also tries to direct farm families to some of the ag organizations that are organizing mental health first aid, such as The Do More Agriculture Foundation (www.domore.ag). People can also find mental health first aid courses through the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website at www.mhfa.ca.

“In farming communities people tend to take care of their own. If someone has a problem, friends and neighbours are quick to come help,” says Wasson. She compares having people skilled at mental health first aid to having more people able to perform CPR.

“That person could help, and direct them to a support system. We need to make this a more normal and acceptable scenario — to go to a mental health care provider or counsellor if you have a severe anxiety attack or on-going issues with depression, just like you’d go to the family doctor if you had a physical problem or nasty bronchitis,” says Wasson.

If a person isn’t ready to see a counsellor, we need to arm ourselves with better ways to have a conversation with them, she adds. We don’t want to inadvertently push them to hide health problems out of embarrassment, says Wasson.

“My goal, every time I leave a wreck, is to not ever have to see someone else hanging in their barn. Whatever I have to do, to try to protect people and keep them safe, is what I try to do,” she says.

What does she tell people to do if someone they know is talking about killing himself?

“I tell them to call the cops and get an emergency service out there. They may be hesitant, not wanting that person to get mad at them. But they’d feel worse if they fail to do anything and their friend does die by suicide. I have said to people that I will never let them getting mad at me get in the way of me keeping them safe. I always figure that I can repair the relationship but I can’t do that if they’ve died,” explains Wasson.

One thing that can spur someone to seek help is the realization that there are other people relying on them. “If you are the person who makes this place run and then you fall apart, you are letting everyone else down,” she says.

Producers face many things that they have no control over, which can be financially devastating even if they’ve done their best with the crops or livestock.

“Someone’s combine may break down and then they are taking money out of the household budget to fix it and then wonder what they will do for the kids’ winter clothes and the other bills,” she says. That financial stress can lead to family stress and strained relationships.

But a counsellor may not understand what only one, poor cut of hay means to a beef producer, she adds. “It’s hard enough for someone who grows up in a culture where you are not supposed to talk about your problems openly, let alone asking them to explain to a counsellor what this means in a farming situation.”

Wasson hopes that someday there will be more openness in farm families to be able to talk about how they feel, so that trying to educate a counsellor doesn’t seem like such a big chore.

At the same time, counsellors need to be interested enough to develop the background so they understand why a person would be so devastated — at so many levels — when there’s a big wreck with their livestock, she says. If a rancher has a heritage herd, or has worked his whole life to develop genetics he wants, losing those animals is not just about the money. It’s a passion and a life’s work lost. Anyone who enjoys animals and is close to those animals also feels shame and guilt if they can’t take care of them.

Getting past stigma and judgment

“When a wreck happens, everyone in town has an opinion, and judgment,” says Wasson.

It’s human nature to spread gossip and pass judgment on someone even if we don’t know all the facts and circumstances. But this makes that person even more isolated. He or she won’t want to tell anyone anything, out of worry over other people’s judgment or gossiping.

“In the meantime, someone might say they drove by and threw some hay over the fence to his cows because it didn’t look like he was feeding them. Sure, that person maybe helped, but also went around town talking about it, so there’s a good chance the person who’s struggling is not going to tell anyone what’s really going on,” says Wasson.

Members of rural communities can protect mental health by pausing before stepping into judgment and becoming educated about the signs and symptoms of mental health, says Wasson. Offer support before offering an opinion.

“Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and realize that you’d want help and empathy from your neighbour rather than gossip behind your back.”

To help people connect with struggling neighbours, Wasson suggests certain types of opening statements. First, connect and identify with them, using whatever language would make sense, and show empathy.

“You might say something like, ‘It makes sense to feel the way you are, with everything that’s happened,’ and then ask that person what they think has changed in how they are feeling. You might mention things you’ve noticed, like maybe you don’t see them anymore or they are not picking up the phone or coming to the door.”

You can also reassure the person that it’s okay if they’re not sure how to manage things, and that anyone going through that situation would likely need help.

“You want to normalize it for that person and offer support,” says Wasson.

Let them know who might be able to help. If the person belongs to a church, suggest faith-based leaders. Formal mental health supports are also an option.

“If you can personally relate, it helps, like telling that person that when you and your wife or husband were having a hard time, you went to see such-and-such and this might help them, too.”

Pride is a good thing, says Wasson. It’s what gives you the strength to keep going and not give up, and able to do all the things you need to do on a ranch. But when you are too proud to accept help when you need it, and everything is falling down around you, it becomes a problem.

Some people say they don’t want any handouts, but Wasson says there’s a big difference between a handout and a hand up. She tells them that if this was happening to someone they cared about or one of their neighbours, they would help any way they could.

“So why not realize that this is just a sign that you’ve been a good neighbour; people want to help you. There’s no shame in that.”

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