Mental wellness on the farm

Lilian Schaer, for LRIC
February 26, 2018
By Lilian Schaer, for LRIC
Mental wellness on the farm
Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash
Mental wellness is not a topic widely discussed in farming even though there is growing anecdotal evidence of producers that are struggling. That’s why two years ago a Canadian research team led by Andria Jones-Bitton, a professor at the University of Guelph, launched a multi-phase study focused on mental wellness in the Canadian agriculture sector.

The first phase included a literature review and a national survey of over 1,100 farmers from all agricultural sectors. The intention was to establish the prevalence of conditions like depression, anxiety, stress, burnout and resilience – the ability to overcome obstacles and challenges.

“Unfortunately, those data confirmed our suspicions that Canadian farmers are experiencing high levels of stress and depression, and burnout at levels higher than both the general population and other occupations,” Jones-Bitton explains.

That initial work led into phase two, which is currently underway and is exploring this issue in much greater detail. The logistical and financial challenges of face-to-face interviews resulted in an Ontario-focus for the second phase of the research. Jones-Bitton’s PhD student, Briana Hagen, is travelling across the province to meet and speak with farmers one-on-one. The goal is to better understand their experiences with stress and mental well-being, the factors contributing to stresses and exploring what help, if any, they are seeking.

“We’re expecting to find some barriers to getting help from living where they do – access to even a family doctor can be poor in rural areas – as well as likely some cultural barriers,” Jones-Bitton says. “Mental well-being wasn’t talked about in previous generations across the board, but even more so in farming communities where you were expected to be tough and strong and silent.”

Egg Farmers of Ontario was an early supporter of the second phase of the research. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) – University of Guelph Partnership, Ontario Pork, Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency, Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Animal Health Coalition are also funding the work.

Data collection should be complete by the end of 2017 and will then be used to develop resources for farmers. A mental wellness literacy program will be created for the farming community that will include a focus on farm and rural situations and case studies that are common in agriculture. It will also include an online training component for people who can’t take two days away from their farms or jobs to attend a workshop.

“Our goal is to design a program that can teach farmers, veterinarians, industry representatives, transporters and others involved in ag about mental wellness, such as how to recognize common signs and symptoms of distress, and how to have a conversation with someone if you suspect they are struggling,” she says.

“There is a lot more talk even now compared to a couple of years ago, and we hope these resources will enable more conversations about wellness on the farm.”

She estimates the mental wellness literacy program and associated resources will be completed, launched and evaluated in early 2019.

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