Whether you think of it as a job or a lifestyle, farming comes with a lot of stress. A blitz of research is starting to reveal the toll the high-pressure profession takes on the mental health of farmers.
“The mental health of farmers in Alberta is not good. It is worse than the national average,” said Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, researcher and professor at the University of Alberta Augustana Campus.
Nationally, the mental health of farmers is generally worse than the rest of the population, and declined even further during the pandemic, according to research from the University of Guelph. Stress, anxiety, depressions, emotional exhaustion: researchers found the mental health of farmers was worse than the general population in almost every way.
Suicidal ideation among farmers is more than twice as high among farmers than other Canadians, according to the 2021 Survey of Farmer Mental Health. And research from the Centres for Disease Control has found higher rates of suicide among agricultural workers than any other profession.
Farming involves many of the general risk factors for suicide in occupation, such as a high degree of isolation, varying shift schedules, and access to lethal means, Purc-Stephenson said. In addition to these, her research has identified three major risk factors that are unique to farming.
One is the deep sense of farmer identity.
“Farming isn't really a job, it's more of a lifestyle. It's a vocation. And it's really hard for them to disconnect their work-self from their regular-self,” she said. “Many of them were members of multi-generational farms. And when they feel this pressure that they might not succeed, or they might lose the farm, that weighs really heavy on them.”
“They're deeply connected to the land, field, and even the equipment. If the farm fails, they see that they have failed as a person, and they can't imagine doing anything else.”
Along with financial crises – the record cost of seeding, variable yields, animal epidemics, to name a few – Purc-Stephenson also identified the “double edged sword” of family and community as having a major influence on farmer mental health.
On the one hand, the support network at home can be great, but as employees and coworkers are also commonly relatives, “sometimes work would spill over into the family,” she said.
“In our study, the individuals who died by suicide had often experienced a breakdown in marriage, or there had been a significant illness that really disrupted the flow of work and added to that pressure that they were feeling and that isolation.”
Like family, rural community is both a strength and a risk factor. While the bond with your neighbours can protect against isolation, many farmers felt they were “living in a fishbowl” where everyone knew and judged their every decision.
“If someone's really feeling the need to reach out and talk to a therapist or get some help, they were worried that others might see their truck parked outside of a therapist office or something. And that mental health stigma is still so prevalent in rural areas,” Purc-Stephenson said.
AgKnow, the Alberta Farm Mental Health Network, has been working to break down some of the barriers farmers face when accessing care. The organization has a network of 12 therapists listed on its website, all of whom have a connection to farming, and provides two free sessions for those who need help.
Because many of the sessions are offered online, it can feel more confidential bypass some reservations about community stigma and “break that barrier a little bit,” Purc-Stephenson said. “Why it's important to have this agri-therapist network is to improve that farm credibility, that psychological distance that farmers often feel is between a practitioner and themselves.”
Purc-Stephenson said there are about seven studies on farmer mental health in Alberta that are currently wrapping up, and it will be “game changing in terms of the landscape of research on farmers and their mental health.” She said they research could give policymakers better tools to make sure farmers feel supported and can make decisions they are comfortable with.
“I think that it is not only about giving farmers the tools they need, like mental health literacy and resources, but it's also about ensuring that there are policies and programs that allow farmers to live productive and fulfilling lives.”