Hi! My name is Amanda, and I have the unique situation of being a practicing mental health professional and a born and raised farm girl. I was in three, yes, THREE different 4-H clubs growing up, learned to drive the combine at age 12, and was told that summer holidays are “for city kids.” Right now, my full time job is at Mobile Crisis Services in Regina where, in addition to responding to emergencies related to mental health including suicide prevention and response, we also operate the….drum roll please….Farm Stress Line! A 24 hour phone resource staffed by trained crisis counselors. In addition to this, I also work at the Regina Mental Health Clinic where I provide crisis mental health support because, hey, what farm girl would only work ONE full time job, right?
When I began at Mobile, I was very excited about the Farm Stress Line because I had no idea that there was such a thing, and I’m sure many of you are in the same boat. My supervisor was also very happy to have a new trainee who “spoke farmer.” This struck me as funny, coming from Binscarth, Manitoba where you’d be hard-pressed to find even one family in our town of a whopping 425 people who doesn’t “speak farmer,” but you may find it trickier in my hometown to find someone who does speak the language of mental health.
I’ve talked many times with my family, close friends in the industry, and with callers on the Farm Stress Line about what keeps this “if it’s not bleeding suck it up and keep working” mentality going. We all know the attitude. Picture yourself sitting down with your dad/grandmother/grandfather and asking him to have a talk about his feelings. If the thought of doing that makes you think you’d rather scrape rotting canola (yeah…the kind that’s past brown and has turned bright red) out of a bin in plus 35 then I don’t think you’re alone, and there’s actually a reasoning behind this rooted in your brain. Producers of all types are exposed to chronic stress of events beyond their control. Grain prices, beef prices, hail storms, moisture levels, disease, land available for rent, machinery breakdowns – the list of continual crisis goes on and there is no end to this storm in sight. As a means of coping, an attitude of “just focus on the task at hand to be able to struggle through” is developed to be able to keep one foot in front of the other until winter. While this seems like a good strategy for the short term, this attitude is absolutely detrimental to both our physical and mental health.
Our brains have developed over time to respond in a way to stress that helped our species to survive when we had very different threats to our safety. When we feel our safety is threatened, adrenaline and cortisol are pumped through our body causing our breath to become shallow and rapid, our heart rate speeds up, our limbs may tingle or feel energetic, our blood pressure increases, our metabolism decreases, and we are ready for action. In our day and age, our “safety threats” are very different from what our bodies have evolved to be prepared to handle. Because of this, we need some way of processing our thoughts about these “threats to our safety” and to be intentional in finding an outlet for working out our body’s response to stress, because stress is something that is normal and natural to our body. In fact, stress can be functional or helpful in motivating us when need be. When we just “suck it up” and keep working without processing high levels of stress, our brain chemistry is actually altered making it MORE susceptible to stress and can, over time, lead to anxiety and depression. While I’m sure many people know what the “red flags” of anxiety or depression are, I’m going to list them here just so that we’re all speaking the same mental health language.
If a combination of these is noticeable for a period of more than two weeks, the condition can be diagnosed by a family doctor.
To be clear, we are not just talking about feelings here. Anxiety and Depression Disorders are actual illnesses where physical changes to the brain occur – if you’re interested in this, there are many images of brain scans comparing the healthy brain to patients with anxiety and/or depression on the web.
I’d like for you to picture, for a moment, four other farmers that you might sit down to coffee with. Alright, the five of you are sitting there? Now, currently the rate of mental illness in Canada in the general population is 1 in 5 ; one of those five friends is likely to be suffering from a mental illness of which anxiety and depression are the most common. This is before we consider the “farming factors” which cause which lead these rates to be much higher. A recent study by the University of Guelph found that 45% of producers experience high stress and 35% would be classified as having depression (averages out to be two people at your table each). In addition to this, 58% of the population of producers have varying levels of problems with anxiety (three people sitting at your table) and 43% experience cynicism about the future (two more people sitting at your table). At these rates, we’ve established that every person at the table is experiencing one of these issues, or is at least acknowledging that one of their buddies has a few of them, right? The interesting thing here, is that the same study found that while more than ¾ of the farming population thought mental health services could be helpful in times of struggle and would seek out such help (almost four people at the table), 40% feel uneasy about getting professional help and 31% felt that seeking professional help could stigmatize a person’s life. Even though every person at that table is struggling with mental health, or knows someone that they care about is struggling, they feel unable to be open about it, or to discuss the supports that ¾ of the group recognizes they might need.
I would say that we are all very well aware of the factors that farmers face that increase the risk for these issues that aren’t necessarily faced by the general population: the obligatory debt, the uncertainty of the business, the extremely long hours, the isolation (both perceived and logistical), the type of demands that make physical-social-emotional-mental balance extremely difficult, lots of time spent operating that can lead to ruminating on self-defeating thought patterns or mental ruts, the comparisons to our neighbors, potential for conflict with family members who are actively involved – these and innumerable more make a recipe for placing producers at risk of deteriorating mental health. Since we are often unable to change many of these factors, our only option is to try to evaluate the way we respond to these factors and improve them with manageable changes.
Now, I’m not going to tell you to shut down the sprayer to go sit in a field and meditate for two hours, that would be ridiculous, but when I get first time callers to the Farm Stress Line, I think that’s what many of them expect me to say. Many producers don’t recognize that there are many of us in the mental health field who “speak farmer”!
During the busier seasons there are small lifestyle changes that can be made. Common suggestions that are often discussed are openly speaking with family/friends for support, participating in spirituality for some perspective-taking, taking advantage of “rain days” by doing an activity you love or getting off the farm or watching a Rider game, and being mindful of physical activity levels and eating habits (yes..including alcohol and caffeine intake). I think that for every creative problem, we need many more creative solutions, so here are some more!
• Supportive/enjoyable podcasts to listen to when operating –these could be mental-health based but don’t have to be! Comedians or audiobooks can interrupt our “mental rut” we may get into during long days in the combine or air seeder. I use the free “overcast” app on my phone as it allows you to download the podcast ahead of time so that you can still listen to it if you don’t have cell service later.
• Absolutely, 100% of the time, do not hesitate to call the Farm Stress Line and put us on speaker phone while you’re going about your business. Even if you’re just feeling a little lonely, or need to talk a problem out, we have staff available 24 hours a day. It’s free and we don’t have call display. We cannot give purely agricultural advice (although I did give one guy suggestions on how to tag an ear-less steer once) but if that comes up, we can find you someone who can. Issues we frequently encounter and provide support for include mental health (stress, depression, suicidal thoughts), teen/parent conflict, relationships, addiction, grief, domestic violence, custody, financial stressors, and stress related to inheritance/estate planning.
• Mental health workers (for counseling during a less-busy time in preparation for the coming season) are free and are spread throughout the province within the various health regions. Calling the Farm Stress Line and we can help you find out who to contact for intake for your area. When you contact the office, it is entirely acceptable to request a worker who has a working knowledge of agriculture, if you feel that this is needed to have someone understand what you are going through.
• If many of the symptoms of anxiety or depression listed above seem to fit with you, it might be a good idea to check in with your family doctor. They will be able to diagnose any issues that you may be having and discuss the possibility of medication options, if this is something you would like for yourself. Be sure to ask lots of questions – you should never feel pushed or rushed into any decision regarding medication. If your doctor is not able to answer the questions you have, then it might be a good idea to find another family doctor, or speak with your pharmacist as they are often more knowledgeable about specific medications than physicians are!
• There are lots of different phone apps to help you track your health habits in relation to your mood. I like “Pacifica” and it’s also free. In addition to tracking your health habits, there’s space to write a small note about your mood that day, and any stressors/good things affecting it. Just being honest with yourself about your mood can relieve a lot of anxiety about trying to squash it down. It also provides a space for gratitude and a tutorial for tracking unhelpful thought patterns related to depression and anxiety.
• Set appropriate boundaries. If you know that harvest is going to be 8 weeks of chaos, do not plan large events or making any large decisions during that time that could be made a few weeks later. Let family or friends know that you will be less available; being honest about your limitations reduces stress for you and will improve the quality of your relationships.
• If you are in a remote area or are nervous about attending therapy but want to work on negative thought patterns or learn more about their relationship to anxiety and depression, consider exploring onlinetherapyuser.ca. This service operates out of the University of Regina and is proven to be as effective as in-person therapy in reducing the severity of depression/anxiety.
• Talk to other producers about what works well for them and be open to incorporating these small changes into your own routine. A good source for this is the “Saskatchewan Farmer’s Group” Facebook page!
A recent suicide brought this issue to media attention and the majority of us believe that one life lost due to lack of access to agricultural mental health services is one life too many. Thankfully our culture of stigma and shame around mental health issues is rapidly changing and the agriculture industry is no exception. We each have a responsibility to be a part of this change!
Thank you for reading and, again, please feel free at any time to call the Farm Stress Line at 1-800-667-4442 to speak with myself or one of my skilled coworkers.
Amanda, BSW, RSW, Proud Farm Girl