With uncertain times going nowhere soon, mental health awareness within agriculture is more necessary than ever.
Mental health advocates are encouraging Canadian farmers and ranchers to be aware of signs of declining mental health and to be brave enough to reach out when someone they know is struggling.
“Sometimes it’s really difficult for us to see that we might be diminishing in our well-being,” said Cynthia Beck, a beef and grain farmer as well as a research assistant in suicide intervention response at the University of Regina. “Sometimes it’s easier for other people to take note of that.”
Mental health encompasses satisfaction of life and the ability to balance our thinking and emotions, to meet our responsibilities on a daily basis and to plan and make decisions. Signs of decreasing mental health may include changes in appearance, loss of interest in usual activities, changes in mood, changes in eating or sleeping habits and withdrawing from people or activities.
Beck and others discussed mental health in agriculture and available resources in a recent webinar hosted by the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, with key takeaways for anyone involved in agriculture and beyond.
Helplessness, hopelessness common factors in dire cases
For many producers experiencing mental health challenges, there’s a connection to the idea of upholding the legacy of their family or a generational farm.
“For me, in providing suicide intervention services, the number-one thing that everyone has in common is they’ve reached a level of hopelessness and helplessness,” said Beck.
“It’s not even so much that they aren’t able to help themselves anymore,” she continued. “The most difficult thing for a farmer or an agriculture producer to deal with is if they feel like they’re not helping their family anymore, or they feel like they’re not helping the farm anymore.”
While society often sees suicide as a selfish action, Beck explained that this isn’t the case for someone who contemplates taking their own life.
“That’s never on the top of their mind. It’s always based on not being able to help the people that they love or honour the farm.”
Heather Watson, executive director of Farm Management Canada, saw similar findings in the organization’s recent survey on the connection between mental health and farm business planning.
“We found that young farmers and women in particular were ranked more highly stressed or reported higher stress than the rest of the farmers,” she said.
For young farmers, this often had to do with the fear of being the generation to lose the family operation, while female producers reported more stress related to transition planning and ensuring the family stayed together.
Stewart Skinner understands this firsthand. A number of years ago, the pork producer from Ontario experienced a period of depression that was connected to his fear of destroying his family’s livelihood after he initiated an expansion of their operation and hard times fell on the hog industry.
“I was the sixth generation to farm in Perth County, and I was going to be the one to bring it down,” he recounted.
Skinner now sits on the board of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a national non-profit organization dedicated to increasing mental health awareness in agriculture. Difficult as it may be, he encourages producers to let go of thinking that they’re responsible for upholding their family’s legacy.
“I am not going to say that if things go bad I have somehow failed my family, because that’s an unfair burden to put on ourselves,” he said.
“We have to look at ourselves as business people, and if it doesn’t make good business sense to be doing what we’re doing, then let’s change instead of holding onto something and destroying our own self-worth for somehow feeling like we need to honour our family.”
Reach out and listen without judgment or comment
Beck urges everyone to trust their instincts, whether it’s to talk to someone about your own issues or to reach out to someone you suspect is having trouble. While mental health is now more commonly discussed in the agriculture community, some may still be reluctant to ask someone if they’re struggling.
“My motto is better to say something and upset somebody than not say anything and then that person silences their voice for good.”
She recommends asking a person how they’re doing twice to show your genuine interest in their well-being.
“When they start talking, be quiet and listen. Don’t try to solve their problems, because it doesn’t matter what you say or do, you are not the person who can solve their problems,” she said. “Listening to them is the number-one beneficial thing that you can do for somebody, and provide them a non-judgmental platform for them to share.”
After that initial conversation, a person may be more willing to talk about what they’re dealing with, depending on the reaction of the other person.
“When people actually do reach out for that first time, whatever the response is to that initial reach-out has the largest implications on a person,” she said. This is why offering solutions isn’t helpful. “You shut them down and you cap whatever experience they’re having. So please don’t do that.”
More mental health first aid training needed throughout the industry
Training in mental health first aid is available throughout Canada, and Skinner believes that more individuals having this training will make a difference within the industry. Clinics are designed to give people the tools and confidence to reach out to someone they suspect may be struggling with a mental health crisis.
Skinner would like to see this training made available within agriculture-related companies and different parts of the supply chain to better reach those who need help, especially with the often-isolated nature of farming and ranching.
“Maybe the only person you’ve talked to is your agronomist for the last three weeks,” he said. “So if the agronomist has that capacity built in through some mental health first aid to feel confident and able to ask that second ‘are you fine?’ those are the kind of real, meaningful change that we will make.”
It’s the isolation and lack of resources that may face those living in rural areas that makes this individual connection all the more vital, said Skinner.
“I firmly believe that the best positive impact we can have is building capacity at the local community level,” he said. “Our neighbours and our supply chain partners are the people with the most regular touch points with us.”
Do More Ag’s Community Fund supports free mental health first aid training in a number of rural communities each year. Applications for the fund are currently closed but will be open again in the future.
Do More Ag also offers a library of national and province-specific mental health resources.
The University of Regina’s online therapy unit also offers several mental health resources, including free online cognitive behaviour therapy for residents of Saskatchewan.
As well, many post-secondary institutions across Canada offer free mental health resources for the wider community.