University of Guelph study finds farmers among most vulnerable to mental health issues

Farmers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health, according to a new study from the University of Guelph.

Early findings of the survey, conducted on agricultural producers from September 2015 to this past January, show that stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout are all higher among farmers than among other groups. What’s more, Canadian farmers are more stressed than those living and working elsewhere.

Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton, a professor at Guelph’s Department of Population Medicine, analyzed more than 1,100 responses nationwide to an online stress and resilience survey, saying she was left with “little doubt about the impact their job and culture is having on them.”

Jones-Bitton reported that one survey respondent said “We are not invincible, but we feel we must be,” while another said, “What makes me the most upset is that I have everything I dreamed of – love, family and a farm – and all I feel is overwhelmed, out of control and sad.”

The survey found 45 percent of survey respondents had high stress. Another 58 percent were classified with varying levels of anxiety, and 35 percent with depression.

Overall, that’s two to four times higher than farmers studied in the United Kingdom and Norway, Jones-Bitton said.

Other signs of mental health problems revealed by the survey are equally concerning, she added.

For example, significant numbers of farmers had high levels of emotional exhaustion (38 percent) and cynicism (43 percent).

Resilience, popularly believed to be a strength among producers, is lower among two-thirds of the respondents than it is among a comparative U.S. population, the survey found.

A recent report from the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on suicide rates among occupations ranked farmers, lumberjacks and fishermen as having the highest suicide rate in the U.S.

Last fall, Jones-Britton told CBC-Radio that farmers also face unique pressures, such as significant debt.

“They’re also in occupations that are heavily dependent on things that are largely out of their control,” she said. “So, if you consider things like weather or changing government climates–all of these can add significant stresses as well.”

In agriculture, a stigma is associated with mental health treatment, Jones-Bitton said. So, it follows that the survey showed 40 percent of respondents said they’d feel uneasy getting professional help “because of what people might think.”

Another 31 percent said seeking professional help could stigmatize a person’s life. Fewer than half believe there is adequate mental health support from the industry.

At the same time, more than three-quarters of those surveyed said professional mental services can be helpful in times of struggle, and almost as many said they would seek out such help.

Jones-Bitton said she sees that as good news. She is building a team of producers, industry representatives, veterinarians and mental health professionals to create, deliver and evaluate a mental health literacy training program for farmers.

This program would train people to recognize and respond to mental distress, and reduce stigma around mental health issues in Ontario’s agricultural sector.

“We need to do something,” she says. “Farmers want help, and we’re going to find ways for them to receive it.”

Jones-Bitton and the Ontario Veterinary College AWAR2E (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Research and Education) started out studying mental health among veterinarians. The scope grew as it became clear producers also had issues.

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