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'I just cried and cried': Farmers struggle with stigma around mental health

Snow-covered cattle stand in a pasture near Didsbury, Alta., Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. It could be a long, lean winter in cattle country, as drought-ravaged western Canadian ranchers struggle to secure enough feed to get their livestock through the cold months. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh) Snow-covered cattle stand in a pasture near Didsbury, Alta., Monday, Oct. 23, 2023. It could be a long, lean winter in cattle country, as drought-ravaged western Canadian ranchers struggle to secure enough feed to get their livestock through the cold months. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh)
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Christi Friesen remembers her husband saying he knew that the cloud of depression over her was finally lifting when he saw her smile at the end of the gruelling 2016 harvest season.

That October had been brutal, with three storms dumping about 20 centimetres of snow on the couple's Peace River, Alta., grain farm. On the morning of the third snowstorm, Friesen felt the wind knocked out of her when she looked out the window to see a blanket of white covering crops she had hoped they would harvest that day.

"Oh my God. I just sat on the bed and I just cried, and I held my head in my hands," she said in a recent interview. "I just cried and cried and cried .... It was an awful year."

Most Canadian farm families are familiar with the stresses that come with agriculture. Their livelihoods can be affected by the vagaries of nature, crop or animal disease and even distant wars, but often they find themselves silenced by the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Andria Jones, a professor at the University of Guelph's veterinary college, has been studying the mental health of farmers since 2016. Along with her student Rochelle Thompson and research associate Briana Hagen, she analyzed the responses of nearly 1,200 Canadian farmers who completed an online version of the Survey of Farmer Mental Health in Canada between February and May 2021.

They found one in four farmers surveyed reported their life was not worth living, wished they were dead or had thought of taking their own life over the previous 12 months. Their research found that thoughts of suicide were twice as high among farmers than in the general population.

Three-quarters of farmers said they experienced moderate or high perceived stress, Jones said, adding that climate change has intensified these stressors by increasing risks of flooding, fire, drought and disease transmission.

While there is pressure on a farmer to maintain the farm, she said there is also a demand not to show weakness. "And, regrettably, mental health struggle was often seen as a weakness … in some circles it still is, maybe."

An analysis published in August in the journal Rural and Remote Health reviewed 14 studies conducted in India, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom and identified seven themes that contributed to farmer suicide. Lead author Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta, said those factors included financial crisis, isolation, access to toxic pesticides and firearms and an unpredictable environment.

"What is it about farming work that's making it even more stressful?" she said. "In our study, what we found was that a lot of it was tied to the current culture and lifestyle. Farming is not like a regular job where I can quit work at five and go home and not think about it. It's a lifestyle, it's a vocation. Your work is your life, your life is your work."

Purc-Stephenson, who comes from a farming background, said many farm families are multi-generational, meaning the prospect of failing and losing farmland developed over generations weighs heavily.

Most farmers feel the need to be strong, stoic and self-reliant, which also prevents them from seeking out help when they need it, she said. And although farmers value the sense of community in rural settings, Purc-Stephenson said it presents its own set of issues.

"They didn't want to show weakness," she said. "They're not going to, say, go park at the local counselling office, and everyone's going to see their truck parked there."

A 2019 report from the House of Commons committee on agriculture and agri-food looked at initiatives across the country to help farmers facing mental health challenges.

The report said support comes in several forms — telephone help lines, consultations with mental health and agricultural professionals, and funding from the federal government and farming organizations.

"However, all of this is not enough. Access to mental health care is still limited in rural areas, health professionals are still not familiar with the unique nature of agriculture, and current efforts to help farmers are not consistent across the country," it said.

For Friessen in 2016, the prospect of not being able to harvest the crop threw her into a depression as she thought of the bills she would be unable to pay. Her brother had taken his own life two years earlier, and she recognized the signs of depression.

She decided to do what few farmers do: seek help. She made an appointment at her local clinic, and her doctor prescribed an anti-anxiety medication that helped her get through the rest of the harvest season.

Friesen said she was lucky because her doctor also checked in on her, making sure the medication was doing its job and she was feeling better.

She acknowledged she was a "little apprehensive" about filling the prescription and didn't go to her regular pharmacy. But once she realized the pills were helping, she said she started going to her regular pharmacy for refills.

"I was able to push through," she said. "That little bit of belief that my doctor had in me ... that was able to get me through the rest of the season."

Purc-Stephenson said it's in everyone's interest to ensure farmer's get the help they need, as a growing global population increases the need for food.

"Addressing mental health, I think, is one of the ways that we can help ensure a sustainable agricultural industry," she said.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, support is available 24/7 by calling or texting 988, the national suicide prevention helpline.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 9, 2023 

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