FOCUS: How farmers sparked a conversation about mental health

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Farm Mental Health
WATCH ABOVE: A conversation that began with a single social media post grew to a movement to educate more people on the realities of farm stress and suicide. Blake Lough reports – Oct 16, 2017

During the summer of 2017, a conversation considered taboo in farming circles was propelled into the spotlight.

What started as a simple social media post about farm stress and farm suicide, turned into a conversation many considered long overdue.

“Farm stress is real, suicide is real”

Farming is a business like no other; the job brings many rewards but also incredible stress. Producers rely heavily on factors out of human control like weather and markets. Farmers also operate in great isolation.

Gronlid-area farmer Kim Keller has known of the prevalence of farm suicide in Saskatchewan for years. But she believes a fear of judgement among farmers and traditional ‘chin up’ mentality stop many from seeking help.

Gronlid-area farmer Kim Keller helped spark the conversation around mental health issues in farming.

“About four years ago, I heard of a farmer that committed suicide. It bothered me and I thought, ‘what can we do?’ Because I feel like there are steps we can take to prevent people from getting to that point.”

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A study conducted at the University of Guelph suggests that farmers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health.

In a survey of Canadian farmers, 45 per cent reported high stress, 58 per cent reported anxiety and 35 per cent reported depression.

About 40 per cent of farmers said they would not seek help because of the stigma associated with mental health.

The professor who analyzed responses, Andria Jones-Bitton, said Canadian farmers also had alarmingly high levels of emotional exhaustion and cynicism.

“One said, ‘We are not invincible, but we feel we must be.’ Another said, ‘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,’” Jones-Bitton said in a release.

Numbers for Canadian farm suicides are hard to find as they’re often reported as accidents. But in the United States, the rate of farmer suicide is nearly double that of the general population.

In June, Keller heard of yet another farmer who took their own life and decided to start an open dialogue on the realities of farm stress and what it can lead to.

“I received a message over Twitter from a colleague of mine who… had lost one of his farming customers to suicide,” Keller said.

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“I put out a tweet and put out a call to agriculture to do more as an industry.”

Reducing the stigma

Keller’s tweet spread widely through agriculture circles and prompted others to share their own stories about farm stress — including a young farming couple south of Watrous, Sask.

Mathieu and Lesley Kelly — who grow cash crops on 6000 acres of land — come from farming families and have no reservations about the career they’ve chosen.

“You’re your own boss, you make your own opportunities and that’s what’s really great. If you want to be an agronomist on your own farm, you can. You wear so many different hats,” Mathieu said.

Mathieu and Lesley Kelly, a young farming couple south of Watrous, are also aiming to get mental health issues in farming out in the open.

But they also know the realities of the work they do. In a live video posted online, the Kellys shared an intimate conversation about their own experience with farm stress and mental health.

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In doing so, the pair hoped to normalize the conversation around mental health and reduce the stigma associated with asking for help.

“We had just had our second child, Lesley finished up her [maternity] leave and we were starting into harvest,” Mathieu said.

“There were a lot of things in my head. From equipment breaking down, to managing different people on the farm, grain movement, there’s lots of things into that. We had an enormous crop, great potential and as a young farmer, you want to get going, you want to make as much as you can.”

“Every time we turned a corner there was something breaking down, there was more rain coming,” he said.

Mathieu’s stress reached a head during harvest when he was alone in a small trailer, physically and mentally exhausted from long days of work. With Lesley nearly two hours away in Regina, he suffered a panic attack.

“I let it get too bad before saying ‘Hey, there’s an issue here, I need to talk to somebody.’”

Trying not to be a burden on his family, Mathieu picked up the phone and called the one resource that came to mind. A crisis worker on the other end of a mental health line helped him through his attack.

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“I phoned them a couple times. I’m not going to say I only phoned them once. But I found by talking to them the first time, things made sense.”

So why is it so difficult for farmers to step forward and admit they need help?

“There’s a lot of fear of being judged. Being a young farmer, you don’t want to be judged as, ‘Oh, this guy has a problem,’” Mathieu said.

Lesley continued: “Because it affects your personal brand but it also affects your business brand. It’s seen as, ‘Oh if you have these issues, then maybe the bank won’t lend you money.’”

Reaction to the couple’s live video poured in through social media, texts and phone calls. Many applauded Mathieu for his courage in sharing his experience, while others took the opportunity to share their own stories.

“We knew that this is common. This is part of farming and it’s part of life. This is the time to have these conversations,” Lesley said.

“If there’s a sickness in the family, or if a combine starts on fire or a farmer breaks their leg, we’re the first ones to jump in there and help. But when it comes to this conversation, it’s just on the surface.”

Changing the conversation

Since her initial tweet in June, Keller has brought the conversation around farm stress into industry events.

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The Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan (APAS) brought Keller onboard to moderate a mental health panel featuring a mental health coordinator from a Saskatoon health clinic and a Farm Credit Canada representative.

From L to R: Darren Howden, Senior VP Prairie Operations at Farm Credit Canada; Todd Lewis, President of APAS; Danny Ottenbreit, APAS farmer; Ashley Breland, Mental Health Program Co-ordinator, Bridges Health; Kim Keller, APAS farmer (and panel moderator).

“When we were done there was a line up at the mic. We were all kind of ready for backlash. Instead, we got people standing up saying, ‘It’s about damn time we started talking about this,’” Keller said.

“We had some of the older generations sharing and saying, ‘if I counted on my hands the number of people I’ve lost to suicide, I don’t have enough fingers.’”

Thanks to widespread interest in the panel, Keller said details are being ironed out for more mental health panels at regional agriculture events, giving industry professionals an opportunity to get involved in the conversation.

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“They understand and recognize that when producers are having troubles, it’s not long before they start having trouble as well and nobody wants to see the worst case scenario happen,” APAS president Todd Lewis said.

In the meantime, resources like the Farm Stress Line are available to producers experiencing problems. In July 2017, trained crisis workers there received 35 calls. In the months prior to that, the mental health line fielded about 25 calls. In July 2016, only 16 calls were made to the farm stress line.

Mobile Crisis Services, which operates the farm stress line out of Regina, said they are currently working to advertise their contact information in more places to make sure farmers know they are available to speak at any time and in complete confidentiality.

Farm Stress Line: 1-800-667-4442

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention and Depression Hurts both offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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