Trou­bling times

Farm­ers across the prov­ince strug­gle with burnout, iso­la­tion – and in­creased sui­cide risk


Chris van den Heu­vel feels as though he’s un­der at­tack.

Speak­ing to the Se­nate of Canada ear­lier this month, the Port Hood farmer warned those in the in­dus­try are un­der in­creas­ing men­tal duress, fac­ing ev­ery­thing from the im­pact of for­eign trade deals to mil­i­tant an­i­mal rights pro­tes­tors.

“Farm­ers are con­cerned that peo­ple don’t value what we do to help them live – to pro­vide safe and healthy food for them,” said van den Heu­vel. “We’re here to pro­vide a safe, sus­tain­able, healthy food sys­tem. All we ask for is sup­port – and we don’t feel that we’re get­ting that right now.”

Such feel­ings are com­mon­place among Nova Sco­tia farm­ers who face a loom­ing men­tal health cri­sis, ac­cord­ing to Dr. An­dria James-bit­ton. She ad­dressed the au­di­ence at the re­cent Nova Sco­tia Fed­er­a­tion of Agri­cul­ture’s AGM, in Truro via phone.

Men­tal health stresses im­pact­ing farm­ers in­clude many fac­tors beyond their con­trol, such as heavy work­loads, drought and other ex­treme weather events, - nan­cial wor­ries, un­cer­tain mar­ket prices, red tape, dis­ease out­breaks and fam­ily re­la­tions.

“We’ve got a prob­lem in Cana­dian agri­cul­ture and many of our farm­ers are strug­gling, even if they’re not talk­ing about it,” said James-bit­ton via con­fer­ence call from On­tario. “Farm­ers in mul­ti­ple coun­tries are at in­creased risk of sui­cide.”

Farmer Chris de Waal weathered his own storm in 2016, when his farm out­side Can­ning was caught in a drought that gripped the An­napo­lis Val­ley. His op­er­a­tion lost both crops and feed for his cat­tle, a heavy nan­cial toll for his farm, which spe­cial­izes in beef sales.

“It’s some­thing that is quite con­cern­ing to a lot of us, es­pe­cially us young farm­ers, as we see our older col­leagues strug­gle,” said de Waal. “I’m naively op­ti­mistic in the sense that we are talk­ing more and more about men­tal health – and one of the crit­i­cal so­lu­tions to it is com­mu­nity.”

Nev­er­the­less, James-bit­ton’s statis­tics are grim: of 1,100 farm­ers across Canada polled be­tween Septem­ber 2015 and Fe­bru­ary 2016, 45 per cent re­ported feel­ing highly stressed.

Of the same group, 58 per cent felt some de­gree of anx­i­ety and an­other 35 per cent re­ported feel­ing de­pressed.

The poll’s find­ings re­vealed a lack of fam­ily and in­dus­try sup­port were key fac­tors be­hind raised stress lev­els, with pig farm­ers su er­ing most of all. James-bit­ton said that was pos­si­bly due to porcine epi­demic di­ar­rhoea virus out­breaks.

Echo­ing van den Heu­vel, JamesBit­ton said many farm­ers feel ig­nored by the gov­ern­ment.

Some re­sponses she’s re­ceived: “I’m de­stroy­ing my­self so that oth­ers are cared for.”; or, “I’m pulled in mul­ti­ple di­rec­tions and un­able to meet the work life bal­ance.”

Both James-bit­ton and van den Heu­vel called for a na­tional strat­egy to im­prove farm­ers’ men­tal health.

is could in­clude in­dus­try so­cial work­ers help­ing any­one fac­ing is­sues, or even re­lief work­ers vis­it­ing a farm to care for an­i­mals while a farmer re­cov­ers from a health or fam­ily cri­sis. Van den Heu­vel said peo­ple staffing phone helplines should re­ceive train­ing to un­der­stand men­tal health is­sues faced specif­i­cally by farm­ers, such as stress over crop yields.

Such mea­sures would im­prove the well­be­ing of farm­ers, their fam­i­lies and their an­i­mals. JamesBit­ton said most cases of an­i­mal abuse or ne­glect on farms oc­cur when farm­ers fac­ing a men­tal health cri­sis like de­pres­sion are un­able care for them­selves or any­one else.

“When we have more well­ness in our lives, we can ex­pect bet­ter health and more pro­duc­tiv­ity and more prof­itabil­ity,” said JamesBit­ton.

We’ve got a prob­lem in Cana­dian agri­cul­ture and many of our farm­ers are strug­gling, even if they’re not talk­ing about it.

— Dr. An­dria James-bit­ton


Farmer Chris van den Heu­vel says many peo­ple like him are feel­ing ig­nored and un­der­val­ued, as they face a long list of threats to their men­tal health. They in­clude heavy work­loads, fam­ily ten­sions and forces beyond their con­trol like ex­treme weather and mar­ket prices.

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