Farmer’s Mental Health Issues are Growing Awareness
Every morning Old MacDonald wakes up to his rooster’s crow at the break of dawn to a sunny day on his family farm. He feeds his animals, loving each one of them, spends the afternoon walking through billowing wheat fields and straight corn rows while tending to his crops, and comes home at dusk to his loving wife and family. He is stoic, can fix any problem he encounters, does anything asked of him plus more, and is seen as a strong figure to the community. He loves his life as a farmer and never complains. To everyone he seems happy and at peace with himself, unbeknownst to others, he is suffering from depression and extreme stress and does not know who to turn to or how to address this situation. He will continue living his life day by day, silently suffering.
Farmers have some of the highest suicide rates of any profession worldwide, and are amongst the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health. In numerous surveys, they have reported high levels of stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and irritability. Most feel uncomfortable seeing mental health professionals because of the stigma behind that, and that it does not fit the farmer stereotype. A farmer surveyed about mental health by University of Guelph Professor, Andria Jones-Bitton said, “We are not invincible, but we feel we must be.”
This survey questioned 1100 farmers across Canada from various backgrounds. Results indicated that farmers felt stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout in greater quantities than other professions. High stress levels were indicated by 45% of farmers, while 58% claimed varying levels of anxiety and 35% cited having depression. While many usually leave the comments sections in surveys blank, several farmers took this opportunity to be heard anonymously, “Some of the producer comments leave little doubt about the impact their job and culture is having on them,” Jones-Bitton said.
So why, exactly, is farming one of the most stressful professions? For one, farmers cannot leave their worries behind as others do when they leave their office at five p.m. They face work pressures on a constant basis as most live on their farms and have to spend more than 40 hours a week working to keep their enterprise afloat.
Farming is also one of the most criticized of all professions, as food and how it is produced is something that is regularly talked about. Almost all of these conversations now include buzzwords such as free run, humanely raised, grass fed or non-genetically modified. Many farmers feel like they are producing the wrong way, especially with numerous consumers commenting on their every move – even though they have no agricultural knowledge themselves. “That was something we did see reflected in the comments…. Certainly, a sense of (increasing) public scrutiny” said Andria Jones-Bitton of the study she conducted.
However, criticism is not one of the top factors affecting farmer’s mental health. The most common reasons, which are out of the farmer’s control, include weather conditions, market prices, new or altered government regulations and lack of access to services. These factors all have a dramatic impact on the production methods a farmer uses, and the outcome of the crop or livestock’s health. Under the control of the farmer, the main factors affecting mental health include having a poor harvest or unproductive season, financial issues, and long work hours (most of which are in isolation). Factors such as these are common in many professions, but in the case of farmers, they cannot escape these problems.
Not only are mental health issues in farmers a problem, but also so are the barriers preventing them from receiving help. Many feel the need to keep up the farmer stereotype. They are seen as strong, stoic figures and have a lot of pride, this prevents them from accepting the fact that they need help, and curbs them from seeking it. The agricultural community is also very close knit, so many fear that word about seeking help would spread quickly, along with the negative stigma associated with mental illness. In a literacy review of farmer’s mental health in New Zealand, it was found that many farmers are interested in getting help but at the end of the day they are too exhausted and lose motivation, or they are too busy and do not have enough time.
Another barrier to receiving help includes the location of the farmers. The vast majority live in rural areas where there is limited access to seeing mental health professionals as their facilities are often in urban centres. However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the amount of online resources that are able to help those not able to commute to treatment facilities. Along with limited access is the fact that many have limited knowledge of mental illness symptoms. Symptoms are going unnoticed and untreated for many. In Saskatchewan, 92% indicated they strongly felt it was important that if they saw someone regarding mental health, that the person were to be knowledgeable of agriculture. Compared to others agriculture is such a unique industry, and not easy to understand as an outsider, therefore, this is a very niche area for health care professionals.
Farmers having nowhere to turn for help has led to their profession having higher suicide rates than many others, though the exact numbers are hard to determine, as many farmer deaths are categorized as equipment or farming accidents with little details. In the United States, the suicide rate for farmers is twice that of the general population, while in the UK the farmer suicide rate increased ten-fold during a disease outbreak in 2001. A link has been found between increased stress levels, mental health problems, and suicide rates for farmers, implying that the rates increase at times of crisis such as drought, increased disease and poor harvest seasons.
One thing is for certain, we cannot ignore these results. If professions we consider highly stressful such as police officers have 50% of employees reporting high stress, we should hold farmers in the same regard as 46% of them report high stress. As we consume what farmers produce daily, it is up to us to remember that there is a face behind our food. A farmer dedicates their lives to produce everything we eat, the least we could do is remember that they can struggle from mental health the same as anyone else, and support them.
“What makes me the most upset is that I have everything I dreamed of – love, family and a farm – and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad.” – Anonymous Canadian Farmer