COVID-19 and the rising cost of doing business sowed the seeds of anxiety and depression on Ontario farms.
Researchers from the University of Guelph surveyed 1,200 farmers in early 2021 and found higher rates of stress, emotional exhaustion and burnout than in the general population.
Farmers were twice as likely to have contemplated suicide, with one in four respondents saying “their life was not worth living, (they) wished they were dead or had thought of taking their own life during the past 12 months.”
“It’s a troubling situation,” said Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, a professor at the Ontario Veterinary College, who led the research.
“Farmers have long faced occupational stressors due to the weather, their workload and finances,” Jones-Bitton said.
“The pandemic, however, added new stresses, such as increased costs, reduced seasonal agricultural farm workers due to travel bans in 2020, and farm processing backlogs due to workers and truck drivers being ill with COVID-19.”
The findings were no surprise to Burford farmer Larry Davis, who said farming is stressful at the best of times. One bad harvest can scuttle a year’s work, and as fuel, fertilizer and other inputs get more expensive, farmers feel the pinch.
“A lot of times it’ll wake me up at three o’clock in the morning and you can’t get back to sleep because your mind’s going on and on about ‘how am I going to make a dollar on this?’” said Davis, a director with the Ontario Federation of Agriculture representing Brant, Haldimand and Norfolk counties.
“You’ve got all this money tied up and you’re dependant on the weather, you’re dependant on the whim of the consumer,” he said. “There’s a lot of stress there.”
COVID-19 exacerbated those challenges.
“Farmers get COVID or sick just like everybody else, but there’s no one to replace them,” Davis said.
“They have to make sure the livestock gets fed. If they’ve got crops to plant or harvest, it can’t wait for a week or two for somebody to come back from being sick. That’s a lot of pressure.”
A similar survey in 2016 also found farmers to be more stressed than most Canadians, and the gap further widened during the pandemic, when elevated anxiety levels and cynicism about the future led many farmers to withdraw from their usual social circles and turn to alcohol to cope.
Women in agriculture reported worse mental health than men, Jones-Bitton said, citing a “role conflict” that sees women shouldering the bulk of the parental and household responsibilities while also working on — and sometimes off — the farm.
“This places a large burden on women farmers,” said Jones-Britton.
“We encourage men in farming to ask themselves, and discuss with each other, what they can do to better support and promote women in agriculture,” added post-doctoral fellow Briana Hagen, who participated in the research.
The stressors of agriculture can drive farmers out of the industry, especially if they do not have family members interested in continuing their work.
“If there’s nobody to take it over, you think, ‘What’s going to become of this farm? Will it just end up being a development or a gravel pit?” said Davis, who spoke with pride about how he has made his soil healthier and more productive over the decades.
“I’m tied to this farm emotionally,” he said. “You get to where you’re a part of that ecosystem that you’re trying to make a living from, and it’s hard to separate yourself from the farm and relax.”
Despite efforts to reduce the stigma around mental health, Davis said farmers are still reluctant to admit they need help.
“Farmers are very independent and they figure, ‘I can handle this stress and it’ll come out all right,’” he said.
“And when things don’t go the way the farmer figures they should, up goes the suicide rate.”
Davis encouraged farmers and their family members to call a free counselling line offered through the Farmer Wellness Initiative, a joint project of the OFA and the Canadian Mental Health Association.
Help is available around the clock at 1-866-267-6255. Callers will be connected to mental health professionals who have been trained in the unique challenges farmers face.
“If you’re struggling, reach out for help,” Davis said.
CMHA also offers a program called In the Know that teaches farmers and others connected to agriculture — such as veterinarians and seed salespeople — how to spot the signs of stress and broach the topic in a supportive way.
“We want them to be able to recognize that a farmer is struggling and be willing to open the conversation,” Davis said.
Where to get help
If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or know someone who is, help is out there. In case of an emergency, call 911 for help. Resources are available online at www.crisisservicescanada.ca or you can connect to the national suicide prevention helpline at 1-833-456-4566, or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.
Distress and Crisis Ontario: dcontario.org