IN JANUARY LAST YEAR, an Ontario farmer was convicted of four counts of animal cruelty, after the deaths of more than 1,500 pigs near the small town of Tavistock, Ont. Police officers arrived on the farm to find 1,265 pigs already dead, and another 250 pigs in such distress that they had to be euthanized.
How could he do it?
It’s common for animal rights activists – and even the general public – to demonize farmers who mistreat or abandon the animals in their care. But current research is shedding light on the underlying issues that may lead to tragedies like this one.
“If farmers are struggling with their own well-being . . . they’re likely going to find it difficult to invest in improving animal welfare,” explained Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton to fellow veterinarians at the 2018 National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council Forum. “When we’re mentally unwell, it’s hard to care for ourselves, let alone to care for others, even when those others are really important to us.”
Jones-Bitton, who is also a professor at the University of Guelph, raised the alarm about the state of farmer mental health in Canada in 2016. According to her survey of over 1,100 agricultural producers, farmers experience much higher levels of stress, anxiety and depression than the general population. Fifty-eight percent were classified with varying levels of anxiety, 35 percent with depression, 38 percent with high levels of emotional exhaustion, and 43 percent with cynicism. It’s been estimated that the suicide rate in the Canadian farming sector is 20 to 30 percent higher than in other sectors.
This is a crisis compounded by culture: 45 percent of respondents to Jones-Bitton’s survey reported high levels of stress, but 40 percent said they’d be uncomfortable seeking professional help because they fear what others would think of them.
Farmers are well known for their “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” attitude. Unfortunately, the expectation that farmers be resourceful, resilient and self-reliant often means that symptoms of distress go unacknowledged or even unnoticed, particularly because farming often involves working in isolation.
Fortunately, more and more farmers are opening up about their own struggles with mental health, and this shift comes at an important moment because government is taking it seriously as well.
‘ROOTED IN STRENGTH’
In November of 2018, the federal government announced plans to support mental and physical health in farming communities through initiatives such as a partnership with the rural youth organization 4-H and the creation of a farmer-oriented resource for managing stress and anxiety, called Rooted in Strength.
Delivering farmer-oriented resources like these are critical to success. How do you promote mental health care to a small segment of the population that is reluctant to access services, and often lives too far away to access them, anyway?
Getting it right is really important, as Jones-Bitton stressed at an Ontario stakeholders meeting with government in early January. She noted that callers to a farm crisis support line in Manitoba usually ask two questions first: “Is this confidential?” and “Are you a farmer?” Stigma and distrust are big barriers to break.
Across Canada, increased government funding for mental health services has been a good (if small) start toward addressing the problems our citizens face. Canada’s rural and remote farming communities must not be left out of the equation. Recommendations, such as the development of agricultural social work programs, are pouring in from farming groups and academia. But it will take government will to direct resources to this small, but critically important, group.
As Jones-Bitton told the House of Commons agriculture committee in September of last year: “We can’t have a sustainable food system in Canada if we don’t have sustainable farmers.”
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