Agriculture and Mental Health

This post is going to take an admittedly different turn, so please bear with me here.

If you’re Canadian then chances are you know that today, January 25th is #BellLetsTalk day. Telecommunications giant, Bell, challenges Canadians to start a conversation about mental health across the country and for every phone call and text to or from a Bell-supported cell phone, every long distance call on a Bell-supported landline, every share of the hashtag #BellLetsTalk on Twitter and Instagram, every view of their video on Facebook, and every use of the geofilter on Snapchat, 5¢ is donated to mental health initiatives across the country. A nickel doesn’t seem like a lot, but the campaign has raised over $6 million this way since its inception in 2010. Combined with donations from other companies, individuals and government grants, this initiative has raised $79 million.  While some people are uncomfortable with the prospect of a large corporation using mental health and people’s struggles to make a charitable donation which helps Bell net a nice tax break, from seeing my own friends share their personal experiences on social media and from seeing where the raised dollars have been spent, it’s undeniable that #BellLetsTalk day has had an impact.

So how does this tie in with agriculture? A recent survey of Canadian farmers from my alma mater shows that a good number of Canadian producers are struggling (of those surveyed 45% were reporting high stress, 53% were reporting some degree of anxiety, and 35% were reporting depression).  It’s not a side of agriculture you think about – I certainly didn’t until the article popped up on my school website’s homepage.

Farm life sounds idyllic, right? Watching the sunrise as you walk to the barn, big beautiful fields of corn, wheat and canola, a barn full of baby animals you can pick up and cuddle whenever you feel like it, being your own boss, and watching the sunset after a long day of satisfying hard work.

Not quite.

Those things are all perks, but there’s also a lot of stressors that need to be considered. Many producers work seven days a week, with long hours every day.  Often they are at the mercy of Mother Nature, with weather too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and occasionally a combination of all four in one day. Add to that disease threats to crops and livestock, the stress of desperately trying to save an animal’s life only to have them not survive, commodity prices changing, the challenges associated with being a business owner, a lack of public knowledge about what farmers do all day, abuse on social media from animal rights activists and anti-GMO activists, and bonehead government regulations from politicians who’ve never gotten mud on their boots and it makes sense that sometimes farmers can feel overwhelmed.

Now combine that with the fact that 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide and they now have one of the highest suicide rates of all professional degrees. The Canadian Veterinary Journal has a wonderfully written article about suicide rates and why they are so high among vets. Things like being naturally high achievers, the competitiveness of getting into vet school after an undergraduate degree, compassion fatigue, euthanasia, overhead costs, client expectations, and having the knowledge of and access to high-powered pharmaceuticals are all factors that can have a detrimental effect on the mental well-being of a veterinarian.

That creates a bit of a bleak prospect for the people growing our food, doesn’t it? Members of the agriculture community are starting to recognize the growing problem that poor mental health and mental illness is and now industry conferences are starting to feature sessions on mental health and well-being.  The Ontario Veterinary College now employs a full-time social worker to help veterinary students manage their mental health. These are great first steps in removing some of the stigma associated with mental illness. Continuing a conversation about mental illness and mental well-being is imperative to helping people who struggle get help.  The next steps should be improving mental healthcare access in rural communities, which are under-supported relative to their urban counterparts. This is a bigger hurdle to tackle and will likely take many years to come to fruition. Things like supporting charities that work to improve mental health services like the Canadian Mental Health Association or Healthy Minds Canada or reminding politicians that mental healthcare is just as important to a national healthcare plan as cardiac care or cancer prevention are small things you can do that will benefit the entire Canadian population. Even small things like use of language have an impact, like not saying “Oh, I’m so OCD” when you like things to be arranged in a familiar way or not saying “S/he’s acting bipolar” when someone is showing strong emotions have a small, but noticeable, impact on easing the stigma associated with mental illness.

For clarification, while everyone has mental health, not everyone has mental illness. This guide explains the difference better than I can, but the gist of it is that mental health is a form of well-being where a person can handle life’s normal stresses while mental illness is a clinically diagnosable condition that an individual may have.

I certainly don’t know what the answers are to solve all of this.  What I do know is that mental illness is an invisible illness, and things like having a frank discussion about mental health and taking people seriously when they say they are struggling are effective actions that anyone can do.

If you’re struggling, I’ve listed some resources at the bottom of the post that might be helpful to anyone, not just people in agriculture.

 

I have to offer the biggest of Thank You’s to my friend Ilana, for giving this blog post a nice proof read to make sure that all of the mental health information was presented in the best possible way.  This topic was a little out of my comfort zone, so I am very grateful she agreed to edit!

Canadian Mental Health Association

Good2Talk (For post-secondary students in Ontario)

Healthy Minds Canada

Here 24/7 (Waterloo/Wellington region of Ontario only)

Mental Health Helpline (Ontario only)

 

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