People who own, operate or work on a farm have higher suicide rates compared to most other occupations
The life of a Canadian farmer might sound peaceful – living in the countryside, working outdoors, growing our food.
But scratch that bucolic surface and the reality is much different, with high rates of depression and stress that leave farmers vulnerable to suicide, says a University of Alberta researcher.
Though largely invisible, poor mental health in the agricultural community “has been an issue for a long time,” says Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, a psychology professor and research associate with the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities at the U of A’s Augustana Campus.
With livelihoods that can be threatened by weather, plant or livestock disease outbreaks, rising operational costs and other complex, evolving factors, farming “is one of the most stressful occupations there is,” she says.
By leading a series of studies over the next two years to identify the biggest stressors they’re grappling with, Purc-Stephenson plans to bring more help to farmers, their families and veterinarians.
“We’d really like to shift the culture of farming to recognize that mental health is just as important as running the farm and that it’s OK for farmers to talk about it and seek help when they need it. And we want service providers to know how to communicate with farmers and what their stressors are,” she says.
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“While we won’t be able to eliminate the ongoing work stressors farmers face, we can help them build resilience so they feel more capable of coping.”
Overall, the studies will explore needs, gaps and challenges in mental health service delivery identified by farmers and mental health workers in a white paper that Purc-Stephenson co-wrote for the Agricultural Research Extension and Council of Alberta (ARECA).
Her research will also help build resources for AgKnow, a website created by ARECA through its Alberta Farm Mental Health Network that farmers and others in the agriculture industry can access for information and help with their mental health. She aims to collect and share the stories of farmers who have experienced stress, as well as establish a peer support program.
Research dating back to the 1990s “all tells a similar story” about farmers’ struggles with mental health, Purc-Stephenson notes, pointing to a 2013 study showing that people who own, operate or work on a farm have higher suicide rates compared to most other occupations.
Another national study published in 2020 reported that 35 per cent of farmers are experiencing depression, 57 per cent anxiety and 76 per cent moderate to high stress. And a 2021 study reported that nearly 30 per cent of Canadian farmers had suicidal thoughts in the previous year.
One of the reasons for poor mental health may also revolve around the image of the “stoic, always-working, self-reliant farmer who keeps their issues to themselves.”
That expectation doesn’t leave them much room for dealing with stress, says Purc-Stephenson.
“As mental health awareness has been a largely absent topic of discussion in agriculture, many farmers don’t know the signs of depression, anxiety or chronic stress, so they haven’t entertained the idea that they need help.”
Stress also stems from distinct pressures farmers face in a 24-hour-a-day job, she adds.
“Work and home life can’t be easily separated – it’s hard to set it aside at five p.m like many of us can – so family and worker dynamics can become complicated.”
The relentless pace of farm work is also problematic.
“Farmers have told us they feel time pressure. For wheat, barley or canola farmers, harvest season might mean 14-hour days.”
Rural isolation can also make it harder for farmers to easily seek support. “You might have little opportunity to lean on a co-worker or neighbour.”
Purc-Stephenson’s research will explore some of the main worries farmers shared in the white paper, including the trauma of livestock epidemics.
Farmers and veterinarians will be interviewed about their “lived experience of depopulation,” when partial or entire herds of food animals have to be destroyed due to contagious disease outbreaks, she says.
“We want to explore the best ways to develop and deliver mental health supports to help them manage the impact.”
The research will also focus on another stress point: transitioning the business to the next generation.
“The average age of a farmer in Alberta is 57, and many don’t have a succession plan in place, so they may struggle with how to navigate the decision-making involved. We want to provide some tools and resources – not just for farmers, but for those who might work with them, like accountants and real estate agents.”
One of the studies will also ask therapists who have worked with farmers to identify strategies that help make their clients comfortable about communicating. Research has shown that farmers avoid seeking help because they feel health-care providers don’t understand agricultural pressures.
“If we remove barriers and farmers can see someone is familiar with their difficulties, they might be more willing to seek some help.”
Purc-Stephenson’s research also includes assessing the current quality and quantity of programs and services available to Alberta farmers and their communities, then rechecking it in five years to see whether their research-based mental health intervention is effective.
“It lets us find out what’s working or not working, so we can pivot if needed.”
There are some basic things farmers can do to help manage stress, Purc-Stephenson says.
Get some shut-eye: “There are times when farmers are busy and will find themselves working from morning to night, but ensuring that you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep is really important for your body and brain,” she says, adding that research shows lack of sleep impairs alertness, judgment, co-ordination and reaction time.
Eat smart: Meals and snacks rich in carbohydrates and proteins provide immediate and sustained fuel for the body. “Don’t rely on coffee to keep you going. It can be a great way to enjoy a break, but it won’t give the energy needed to work throughout the day.”
Take a break: “Taking some time away from work will help you do your best work,” says Purc-Stephenson. She advises pursuing an outside interest or hobby at least once a week. Maybe it’s fishing, hunting, golfing or helping coach a youth sports team. Along with the much-needed mental break, “creativity and good problem-solving usually come during these moments.”
| By Bev Betkowski
Bev Betkowski is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.
The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.
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