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Farming and Mental Health

By Dr. Stephen Fleming, PhD, C. Psych.

Agriculture is an industry with a foundation of deep rural roots, hard work, resilience, strength, and community. Yet, producers are among Canada’s most vulnerable. (The Do More Agriculture Foundation)

Rates of stress, mental health issues, and suicide are much higher among people who work in this industry than the general population. The many constant demands, pressures, and time constraints that come with this line of work often make farmers and producers put their work ahead of their well-being.

Data from the National Survey of Farmer Mental Health indicates the following: 

  • 45% of farmers report high perceived stress,
  • 67% of farmers score lower than the general population in terms of resilience, 
  • 58% of farmers meet the classifications for anxiety, and,
  • 35% of farmers meet the classifications of depression.

Poor farmer mental health not only negatively affects the farmers themselves but can also result in negative consequences for their families, farm productivity, and animal welfare. Increased emphasis on the need for sustainable agriculture further increases concerns around farmer mental health. Aspects of sustainable agriculture must surely include the sustainability of the farmers themselves, and poor mental health in this population threatens sustainability.(Jones-Bitton, Hagen, Fleming & Hoy, 2019)

The precursors to burnout are further exacerbated by adding the restrictions of COVID-19 and the unique challenges that winter brings to the farming community.

COVID-19 related stressors include food system disruption, social isolation, financial strain and a reluctance to seek mental health support due to stigma, as such, there is an increased need for prevention, intervention, and recovery resources specific to this community.

What can be done proactively to temper the impact on the farmer’s mental health in times of crises? It’s worth asking what constitutes a crisis in farming? Animal health, fires, crop disease, and market instability are obvious answers, but so is the ability to manage during a pandemic for these essential workers that feed our nation.

Preventatively, we must focus on mental health support services that understand the unique aspects of the community:

  • Accessibility to services inhibited by geography and technology where lack of reliable, high-speed internet in many rural areas prevents telecounselling,
  • Reduced financial barriers to therapy and medication due to lack of benefits, group benefit plans, and assistance plans through associations, 
  • Specific mental-health training plans that de-stigmatize counseling, and,
  • Encouragement of farmers to reflect on the personal satisfaction that comes from the connection to the land and animals.

When crises do occur, intervention through social support services can include the following: 

  • Peer support and mentoring through phone calls and virtual socialization,
  • Hotline support versed in agricultural literacy, available 24/7,
  • Personal advocates where two-to-three people from the community are assigned to help the affected individual, and,
  • Care is made available to all members of the family.

During a farmer’s recovery if a mental-health crisis does occur, assistance relief workers can help with farm tasks while individuals take time to rest. Respite and support homes where farmers can get away from their farms allows them to access mental-health services, enabling peace of mind while qualified support workers can look after their farms in the farmer’s absence. Child-care assistance can relieve family pressure, affording parents time and space to devote to recovery. Access to insurance plans and subsidized counseling/treatment plans to reduce the financial burden and geographic barriers can aid in recovery. We recommend referring to the Emergency Response Model for Mental Health During Agricultural Crises. 

Farmers, and their contribution to society, sustain us in periods of crisis and bring us joy by producing bounty for our tables. Farmer burnout could have implications for farm productivity, the retention of farmworkers and for succession planning between generations; these in turn, may threaten agricultural sustainability. (Jones-Bitton, et al, 2019)


Reference List:

Jones-Bitton, A. & Hagen, B. (2020) Emergency Response Model for Mental Health During Agricultural Crises.https://ovc.uoguelph.ca/population-medicine/sites/default/files/files/ER%20Model.pdf

Jones-Bitton, A., Hagen, B., Fleming, S.J., & Hoy, S. (2019). Farmer Burnout in Canada. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, Dec; 16(24): 5074.doi: 10.3390/ijerph16245074

Jones-Bitton, A., Best, C., MacTavish, J. et al. Stress, anxiety, depression, and resilience in Canadian farmers. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol55, 229–236 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-019-01738-2

Kevany, K., & Jones-Bitton, A. (2020, June 25). Rural Insights Series: COVID-19. Canadian Rural Revitalization Foundation. http://crrf.ca/ri-mentalhealth/

The Do More Agriculture Foundation. Retrieved January 5, 2021. https://www.domore.ag/

In collaboration with Vic Gladwish, Gladwish on Demand Editorial Services.

Photograph provided courtesy of the photographer.

The assistance of Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton in the preparation of this blog is gratefully acknowledged. Dr. Jones-Bitton, D.V.M., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Epidemiology, Department of Population Medicine, and Director of Well-Being Programming, Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON

aqjones@uoguelph.ca