MPs demand more federal assistance as mental-health issues rise on Canadian farms

A farmer works a potato field in North Tryon, Prince Edward Island on Thursday, July 13, 2000. The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan

Lawmakers are calling on the federal government to better support farmers who they say are especially vulnerable to mental-health issues like stress, depression and suicidal thoughts.

In a new report Tuesday, members of an all-party parliamentary committee made 10 recommendations, including ensuring the government considers and mitigates any potential impacts from new policies on the well-being of agricultural producers.

The MPs also recommended public-awareness campaigns to deal with intimidation, cyberbullying and threats faced by farmers from people who take issue with their occupations and practices.

“Issues of economic stress, weather, disaster, suicide have been part of our community’s existence for the last century,” said Conservative MP and committee member Earl Dreeshen, a fourth-generation farmer from Alberta.

“The incidence of mental-health problems in the Canadian agricultural sector is reaching crisis proportions.”

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The report, based on testimony from producers, mental-health experts and government officials, said farmers struggle with many challenges — such as market volatility, debt, long work days, the effects of climate change and loneliness. Mental-health services are often inadequate in rural regions and inconsistent across Canada, it said.

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“When it comes to the mental health of those working in our agricultural sector — those who feed us and contribute enormously to our economic well-being — we ought to be able to tackle this issue and find solutions in a non-partisan fashion,” said New Brunswick Liberal MP Pat Finnigan, the committee’s chair.

A goal of the exercise was to remove the stigma on talking about mental-health issues.

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Alistair MacGregor, a New Democrat, said farmers tend to be a “stoic lot,” but at times their inner strength isn’t enough.

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“These all wear down on our farmers and they need to have the spotlight focused on this particular issue,” said the British Columbia MP.

Other recommendations include:

– Accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet in rural areas.

– National co-ordination — led by the federal government — of research and prevention activities specifically designed for mental health.

– Education of business partners and others who work with farmers to help them detect signs of psychological disorders and distress.

Dreeshen said he was pleased with the report, but he and two fellow Conservative MPs on the committee felt it didn’t go far enough. They released a supplementary report Tuesday with additional recommendations for the government.

One suggestion is to make the “nature of food production” — including how farmers care for animals and crops — part of school curriculums.

Dreeshen said farmers and their families have also been forced to grapple with an emerging source of distress: “social-media attacks from environmental activists and animal-rights extremists.” He added that producers sometimes face hardship from government policies, such as the carbon tax and concessions made in recent trade agreements.

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