Farm­ers be­gin to shed tough outer shells and talk about the iso­la­tion, anx­i­ety and unique men­tal health chal­lenges they face


It’s a bleak har­vest sea­son on Sean Stan­ford’s farm south of Leth­bridge, where just three inches of rain has fallen since the first of May.

Like many farm­ers in south­ern Al­berta, the 34-year-old Stan­ford had high hopes for his crop at the start of the year. But by mid-June the rains had stopped com­ing and his spring wheat, canola, flax and yel­low peas baked in the dried-out fields. Now, it’s time to get the crop off, but Stan­ford al­ready knows there will be no great pay­off once it’s in the bin.

“The yields are not look­ing good,” said Stan­ford. “Ba­si­cally we’ve just seen a whole year’s worth of work erode away be­cause of some­thing we can’t con­trol.”

The near round-the-clock work­load com­bined with the prospect of neg­a­tive re­turns can make har­vest a chal­leng­ing time for any farmer. But for Stan­ford, who was di­ag­nosed with anx­i­ety al­most two years ago, the men­tal health risks are real. When the neg­a­tive feel­ings start to take hold, he makes a con­scious choice to get off the com­bine and seek hu­man con­tact.

“Taking breaks — some­thing as sim­ple as taking a grain sam­ple to town and talk­ing to the peo­ple at the grain el­e­va­tor — can be enough to reset my mind and take me out of the monotony of com­bin­ing a hor­ri­ble crop,” he said. “And I make sure that I make phone calls through­out the day and talk to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. It’s a dis­trac­tion from what’s go­ing on.”

Stan­ford is an out­lier among his peers, in that he has cho­sen to be open about his strug­gles with men­tal health.

A Univer­sity of Guelph study in 2016 found farm­ers are among the most vul­ner­a­ble groups when it comes to men­tal health, re­port­ing higher lev­els of stress, de­pres­sion, emo­tional ex­haus­tion and burnout than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion.

The same study found 40 per cent of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers would feel un­easy get­ting pro­fes­sional help due to the stigma that ex­ists around the is­sue.

“I was afraid to talk about it, when I first got my di­ag­no­sis, but as time went on I started to re­al­ize, ‘hey, I’m not alone,’” said Stan­ford, who tried three dif­fer­ent med­i­ca­tions be­fore find­ing one that helped to con­trol his symp­toms, which he de­scribes as a phys­i­cal feel­ing, like “hav­ing a heart at­tack or a stroke or an aneurysm.”

“Farm­ers are sup­posed to be strong, in­de­pen­dent, salt of the earth peo­ple who don’t need help from any­body,” he said, adding he has also found see­ing a therapist help­ful. “But the more I started to talk about it, the bet­ter I felt about it and the eas­ier it was to start heal­ing.”


There are not a lot of sta­tis­tics avail­able about the men­tal well­be­ing of farm­ers.

A widely-cited study from the U.S. Cen­tre for Dis­ease Con­trol re­ported the “farm­ing, forestry and fish­ing ” in­dus­try had the high­est rate of sui­cide of any oc­cu­pa­tion, but that study has re­cently been with­drawn due to er­rors in the data. In Canada, sui­cides aren’t tracked by oc­cu­pa­tion.

How­ever, An­dria Jones-Bit­ton, the Univer­sity of Guelph pro­fes­sor be­hind the 2016 sur­vey that polled more than 1,100 Cana­dian farm­ers nationwide, said the re­sults of her work point to a def­i­nite prob­lem.

Ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, 45 per cent of Cana­dian farm­ers polled had high stress, an­other 58 per cent were clas­si­fied with vary­ing lev­els of anx­i­ety, and 35 per cent ex­pe­ri­enced de­pres­sion. An ad­di­tional 38 per cent had high lev­els of “emo­tional ex­haus­tion.”

Jones-Bit­ton said there are a num­ber of men­tal health risk fac­tors as­so­ci­ated with agri­cul­ture. Farm­ers work long hours, of­ten in iso­la­tion.

They are un­der sig­nif­i­cant fi­nan­cial pres­sure, of­ten re­quired to take on mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of debt just to pur­chase the land and equipment re­quired to op­er­ate. And in most cases, a farmer’s place of business is also his or her home, mean­ing there is no easy way to sep­a­rate from the work­load.

In ad­di­tion, farm­ers are con­stantly vul­ner­a­ble to unusual events and cir­cum­stances that can im­pact their bot­tom line — from weather and nat­u­ral dis­as­ters to in­ter­na­tional trade dis­putes.

Some pro­duc­ers in the Univer­sity of Guelph sur­vey even re­ported in­creased stress due to the height­ened pub­lic scru­tiny around agri­cul­tural prac­tices.

Anti-meat and anti- GMO con­sumers of­ten at­tack main­stream agri­cul­tural prac­tices on so­cial me­dia, lead­ing some farm­ers to feel their in­dus­try and way of life is un­der at­tack, Jones-Bit­ton said.

“If you look at some of the stresses that farm­ers face, they’re just huge, and so vari­able,” JonesBit­ton said.

“So many of the stresses they’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing in their jobs are out­side of their con­trol, and that leads to a sense of hope­less­ness and help­less­ness — which in­creases their risk for neg­a­tive men­tal health out­comes.”

Brad Osadzcuk knows only too well how a farmer can be knocked off his feet by an un­ex­pected event.

In 2016, Osadzcuk’s ranch near Jen­ner, Alta., was “ground zero” for a bovine tu­ber­cu­lo­sis scare, af­ter a case of the dis­ease was found in a cow traced back to his herd. The re­sult­ing months-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Cana­dian Food In­spec­tion Agency saw more than 50 ranches in south­east Al­berta and south­west Saskatchewan placed un­der quar­an­tine.

“I was afraid to talk about it, when I first got my di­ag­no­sis, but as time went on I started to re­al­ize, ‘hey, I’m not alone.’ … But the more I started to talk about it, the bet­ter I felt about it. — Sean Stan­ford, farmer

As a pre­cau­tion to keep the dis­ease from spread­ing, nearly 12,000 an­i­mals were or­dered de­stroyed — in­clud­ing Osadzcuk’s en­tire herd.

“That TB thing was just a night­mare. It was by far the worst thing I’ve been through in my life, emo­tion­ally,” Osadzcuk said. “I was re­ly­ing on sleep­ing pills. I wasn’t sleep­ing and I knew I had to get sleep, so I doped my­self up.”

Osadzcuk said be­cause the TB episode af­fected his en­tire com­mu­nity, he tried at the time to keep a brave face for his friends and neigh­bours.

He ac­knowl­edges part of the rea­son for that may have been the in­grained cul­ture of farm­ing, where sto­icism is val­ued and where pro­duc­ers have tra­di­tion­ally kept their prob­lems to them­selves.

“Es­pe­cially us cow­boys, we like to think we’re pretty tough,” he said.

“My dad’s gen­er­a­tion, you didn’t show weakness. It would lit­er­ally eat you up inside, and then one day you’d find out you had a neigh­bour who shot him­self or hung him­self, and no­body even knew there’d been a prob­lem.”

Pro­duc­ers af­fected by the bovine TB out­break of 2016 ul­ti­mately re­ceived $39 mil­lion in gov­ern­ment com­pen­sa­tion pay­outs, but Osadzcuk said he knows of at least one pro­ducer in the Jen­ner area who had to check him­self into the hospi­tal for stress-re­lated health com­pli­ca­tions dur­ing the height of the cri­sis.

“You think you’re go­ing broke, you’re stressed and de­pressed. You lit­er­ally think you’re go­ing to lose your liveli­hood,” he said. “It was an aw­ful time.”


The men­tal health risks to farm­ers are am­pli­fied in a year like this one, where pro­duc­ers across the Prairies are deal­ing with the af­ter­math of pro­longed hot and dry con­di­tions. Ac­cord­ing to a fed­eral gov­ern­ment assess­ment, as of the end of Au­gust, large por­tions of south­ern Al­berta are now con­sid­ered to be in “se­vere drought” (de­fined as ab­nor­mally dry con­di­tions oc­cur­ring on av­er­age ev­ery 10 to 20 years) while a small area south and west of Medicine Hat is cat­e­go­rized as in “ex­treme drought” (oc­cur­ring once ev­ery 20 to 25 years).

The Al­berta gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates that across the prov­ince, crop yields are six per cent be­low the five-year av­er­age, but 27 per cent be­low av­er­age in the hard-hit south­ern re­gion. While some re­gions re­ceived rain and even snow this week, mois­ture dur­ing the height of har­vest is a hin­drance, not a help.

The poor weather con­di­tions have meant fi­nan­cial stress and men­tal worry not just for grain, ce­real and oilseed farm­ers, but for cattle pro­duc­ers as well. Ac­cord­ing to the Al­berta gov­ern­ment’s Aug. 28 crop re­port, 36 per cent of the prov­ince’s pas­ture land is rated in “poor” con­di­tion and in some re­gions that fig­ure climbs to nearly 60 per cent.

Cattle are get­ting thin and pro­duc­ers whose graz­ing land has dried up are strug­gling to source feed from else­where. In some ar­eas, ac­cord­ing to Al­berta Beef Pro­duc­ers chair Char­lie Christie, the price of hay has nearly dou­bled from a year ear­lier.

Many ranch­ers are be­ing forced to make tough de­ci­sions — in­clud­ing sell­ing off cows to feed­lots pre­ma­turely be­cause they know they won’t be able to feed them over the win­ter months.

“In the ar­eas that are hurt the most, the stress level is quite high ... Some guys are liq­ui­dat­ing 20, 30 per cent of their herd,” Christie said.

At a re­cent Al­berta Beef Pro­duc­ers board meet­ing, mem­bers dis­cussed the toll that a drought like this can take on ranch­ers’ well-be­ing. While — in gen­eral — agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers are be­com­ing more open about talk­ing about men­tal health, Christie said his or­ga­ni­za­tion is well aware that some ranch­ers may be suf­fer­ing in silence right now.

“De­pend­ing on what kind of ge­net­ics you’re us­ing, it can take 10 to 20 years to build a cow herd and feel re­ally com­fort­able and good about it,” Christie said. “If you have to liq­ui­date it, it’s part of your life ... so we’re def­i­nitely look­ing at that (the men­tal health as­pect) and mov­ing for­ward to see what more we can do there.”


For farm­ers ex­pe­ri­enc­ing any form of men­tal dis­tress, there are a num­ber of fac­tors stand­ing in the way of get­ting help. Even those who are able to get past the stiff up­per lip men­tal­ity that is preva­lent in the in­dus­try may have dif­fi­culty find­ing coun­sel­lors or ther­a­pists in ru­ral ar­eas. And the de­mands of har­vest or car­ing for live­stock may make it im­pos­si­ble to take time off to travel into the city for ap­point­ments.

That’s part of the rea­son be­hind the 2017 launch of Do More Agri­cul­ture, a not-for-profit foun­da­tion that aims to cre­ate aware­ness about men­tal health on the farm and build a com­mu­nity of sup­port and re­sources for those af­fected.

Co-founder Les­ley Kelly, who lives and farms with her fam­ily east of Saska­toon, said the foun­da­tion has launched a pi­lot pro­ject that will pro­vide 10 to 12 ru­ral Cana­dian com­mu­ni­ties with men­tal health first-aid train­ing at no cost.

Sim­i­lar to tra­di­tional first aid in that it is meant to be used in emer­gen­cies un­til ap­pro­pri­ate sup­port is found, men­tal health first aid refers to in-the-mo­ment help for in­di­vid­u­als deal­ing with an urgent men­tal health prob­lem or cri­sis.

“I like to ex­plain it as, if I were to sprain my an­kle, most peo­ple would know in that in­stant what to do,” Kelly said. “But if I were to have a panic at­tack, chances are peo­ple would not know what to do.”

Last July, Kelly and her hus­band, Mathieu, did an in­ter­net live-stream shar­ing their own men­tal-health strug­gles — hers with the “baby blues” fol­low­ing the birth of the cou­ple’s sec­ond child, and his with anx­i­ety re­lated to farm and fi­nan­cial stress.

She said the re­sponse to that video showed her just how hun­gry the agri­cul­ture com­mu­nity is to have a real con­ver­sa­tion about men­tal health.

“Our phones just lit up with peo­ple say­ing, ‘This is me. This is what I’ve been go­ing through,’” she said.

“It was a huge eye-opener to me.”

Do More Agri­cul­ture is also try­ing to keep the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing on so­cial me­dia, since many farm­ers work in iso­la­tion day-to-day but are able to con­nect with peers on Twit­ter.

“You re­ally do think you’re alone, that ev­ery­one else is per­fect and lives nor­mal lives, and that’s to­tally not the case,” Kelly said.

Back on his Leth­bridge-area farm, Sean Stan­ford knows he will need to keep an eye on his own men­tal health not just for this har­vest sea­son, but likely for the rest of his life.

“I know how to man­age it (the anx­i­ety) a lot bet­ter now, but it’s still there,” he said.

“It’s not re­ally any­thing that will ever go away.”

How­ever, Stan­ford said he has drawn strength from shar­ing his story, and the hope that other farm­ers will see his happy-golucky ex­te­rior doesn’t al­ways re­flect what is go­ing on inside.

“Maybe other peo­ple can look at me and say, ‘hey, he looked like he had his sh*t to­gether, but he ac­tu­ally doesn’t,’” Stan­ford said. “And maybe that’s OK.”

It would lit­er­ally eat you up inside, and then one day you’d find out you had a neigh­bour who shot him­self or hung him­self, and no­body even knew there’d been a prob­lem. — Brad Osadzcuk, farmer


Farmer Sean Stan­ford — with wife Am­ber­ley and kids Hux­ley, 5, and Ma­cie, 1 — says open dis­cus­sion helps com­bat men­tal health is­sues.


Al­berta farm­ers held out high hopes for their crops at the be­gin­ning of the year. But there is no pot of gold wait­ing for them at har­vest.

Sean Stan­ford, in his flax field on his farm near Ma­grath on Tues­day. was di­ag­nosed with anx­i­ety in the win­ter of 2016-17, He says the anx­i­ety is linked to some PTSD he suf­fered as a re­sult of serv­ing on his town’s vol­un­teer fire depart­ment, but says farm­ing ex­ac­er­bates it.


This year’s drought con­di­tions have brought fi­nan­cial stress and worry for farm­ers, some of whom suf­fer in silence.


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