You are here

Mental health, psychology and agriculture

Image describing mental health literacy in agriculture

A groundbreaking study is launched to help farmers handle stress, depression and isolation 

Although we live in an era of so-called fake news and doubts about some information’s authenticity, no one calls into question a social media post from a farmer that says “farm stress is real. Suicide is real.” 

Posts like that set alarm bells ringing for population medicine Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton of the Univeristy of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College (OVC). Through her research dealing with veterinarians’ mental health challenges, she has found farmers face similar issues such as isolation, stress and depression. But due to the stoic nature of farming, these food producers have traditionally said little, at least publicly, about their struggle. 

However, it looks like what they needed was a safe outlet to express their concerns. And that’s what they found in 2015, when Jones-Bitton launched an online survey to try to get farmers to open up about the problem. Indeed, more than 1,100 farmers completed it, noting how they were dealing with mental health problems by themselves…but not very successfully. 

“Some of the producer comments left little doubt about the impact their job and their environment is having on them,” she says. “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.’ We can do better by our producers.” 

So she and her team are now immersed in a multipronged approach to farmers’ mental health. 

First, PhD candidate Briana Hagen and DVM student Ashley Albright are engaged in a comprehensive review of farmer mental health research, and of the few delivery programs and resources that have already been developed for farmers in Canada and abroad. They looked for factors that contributed to these programs either succeeding or not succeeding. 

In many cases, it seemed to be the availability of resources was key. 

“In some cases, programs have been initiated in response to a very specific crisis — like an animal disease outbreak, for example — and when the outbreak dies down, so does the support,” says Jones-Bitton. “There are helplines that have been in place that are dependent on soft dollars or volunteer support, and so unfortunately they went the way that a lot of those things go.” 

Hagen has also conducted hour-long interviews with farmers across Ontario, to determine their specific needs. The interviews covered the stresses farmers experience in their day-to-day work as well as times of serious crisis — like animal disease outbreaks or barn fires. 

The farmers were asked how they think farming impacts their mental health. If they experienced mental health issues in the past, they were asked how it influenced them, their families, their livestock (if applicable) and their business. 

They were also asked whether or not they sought help, and if they did, how they found that experience for them. 

Jones-Bitton saw from the initial survey that farming can be a socially isolating occupation, so they also interviewed government, veterinarians and industry — those are the people that farmers are most often in contact with, and may be the ones who can see signs that things just aren’t right. 

There was overwhelming support for developing a mental health literacy program for agriculture. Mental health literacy means being able to recognize and talk about the signs of stress, depression and other mental health struggles — and most importantly, being able to encourage someone struggling to get support. 

She also assembled a working group of veterinarians, farmers, government, industry, social workers, psychologists, adult educators and academics to talk about developing a mental health literacy in agriculture program. They are in the midst of piloting the program they developed. 

Stigma around mental illness and access to mental health programs are especially challenging in farming communities. For a program to be successful, Jones-Bitton says it will need to be grounded not only in mental health and psychology but also in agriculture. 

Ultimately, she will use the information revealed through her research to determine what resources are needed for sustainable support for farmers right across the country. 

“While a lot of our work is Ontario- focused, we are speaking with interested people and collaborators in other provinces as well,” she says. “The dream down the road is to develop national resources for our producers.”

This research is funded by the OMAFRA- U of G Agreement. Funding is also provided by Egg Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Pork, Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency, Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Animal Health Coalition.

Article by Owen Roberts and Liz Snyder.
Originally published in the University of Guelph Research Magazine 2018 Agri-Food Yearbook Edition.