Opinion: Government takes notice of mental health concerns in farming

Farming has long been considered to be among the most dangerous occupations.

It’s a profession where long hours are commonplace, financial risk is real and many factors, such as weather are out of a farmer’s control.

Combine that with the isolation and loneliness that can sometimes accompany its rural setting and the struggles producers face, regardless of how passionate or talented they are as farmers, can’t be ignored.

For the longest time, the attitude in the agriculture community was to take all the stress and the struggles in stride.

“Cowboy up,” people said. ‘Be farm tough.”

Today that mentality is changing.

A number of farmer suicides in communities across the country have caused heartbreak and prompted some very public discussions, largely on social media, about the stresses and struggles that come with farm life.

At the forefront of this discussion is the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a not for profit aimed at raising awareness about mental health among farmers and others involved in agriculture.

The foundation, while not an emergency help line, provides a detailed list of mental health resources for farmers and has recently partnered with Farm Credit Canada for a one-year pilot project aimed at providing mental health training to professionals in selected rural communities.

FCC has committed $50,000 to the project, one of several agriculture organizations to partner with the Do More Ag Foundation. Bayer has pledged $20,000.

The farm community isn’t the only group talking about mental health these days. The issue has also been top of mind in Ottawa.

This spring, the House of Commons agriculture committee agreed to study the mental health challenges Canadian farmers and ranchers face. MPs agreed to hold a minimum of four meetings on the subject to give producers, officials and others a chance to testify.

The committee held one meeting on the subject before parliament rose for summer recess. In it, MPs heard from two witnesses: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Assistant Deputy Minister Tom Rosser and Farm Credit Canada’s Michael Hoffort.

The statistics and stories were eye opening.

Unlike other countries, Canada doesn’t have specific data about suicide rates within the agricultural community. (A 2016 study by the Centre for Disease Control found agricultural workers in the United States were five times more likely to take their own lives compared to the general population.)

However, a 2016 University of Guelph study that surveyed a thousand Canadian producers found farmers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health.

“Of the 1,000 Canadian farmers contacted for a survey, 45 per cent were experiencing high stress levels, 58 per cent reported symptoms of anxiety, and 35 per cent were dealing with depression,” Rosser told MPs. “All those figures are much higher than the average found in the general population.”

Farming’s strain on mental health, Hoffart said, isn’t limited to tough economic times.

The struggles producers are facing are real, he stressed, adding Farm Credit Canada is “seeing first-hand the need for increased support in this area, as more applications to our ag crisis fund appear to be related to incidents that have suicide as a factor.”

Last year, 287 FCC customers sought funding via its ag crisis fund, valued at $405,000. Two of those applications, Hoffart said, were tied to suicides. This year, in 2 1/2 months, 67 situations have been recorded, of which eight were suicide related. The reality, he said, is “quite alarming”. Three of eight were farm operators, he noted. The remaining five incidents involved farm children.

“We’re hoping this is not a growing trend,” Hoffart said June 13.

Farming stress on mental health is a reality Jean-Claude Poissant knows personally.

During National Suicide Prevention Week, the parliamentary secretary for agriculture told the House of Commons he too, once needed help.

“In 1981, hail destroyed my crops,” the former dairy farmer recalled in February. “My herds had been affected by embryonic death, poisoning due to a feed supplier’s mistake and many other problems.

“However, I have to admit that the most difficult situation I had to endure was my separation from my wife, which devastated me,” he continued. “I needed help. I could not cope on my own. I called Au coeur des familles agricoles, which got me back on my feet.”

Poissant is one of the MPs backing the agriculture committee’s mental health study, which is jointly supported by MPs of all political stripes.

The remaining committee meetings are expected to be held when MPs return from their summer recess this fall.

About the author

Contributor

Kelsey Johnson is a reporter with iPolitics.ca in Ottawa. Born and raised in Alberta, Kelsey credits her Western roots for sparking her interest in all things related to Canadian agriculture. In her spare time, she can be found hiking, camping or curled up with a mug of tea and book.

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