By Tom Collins
MOIRA — An Eastern Ontario sheep farmer’s long goodbye to his kids at the bus stop one day saved his life.
Six years ago, Dale Ketcheson, who farms at Moira, about 25 minutes north of Belleville, was struggling with then-undiagnosed depression. A long dry spring, financial issues and farm repairs were wearing him down. Details about his successes — a marriage, four children and a university football championship — were fuzzy, but “if I broke a plate when I was 12 years old, I can remember that vividly,” he said.
One day during the May planting season, he had enough and was ready to end his life. At the bus stop, he had waited around to give his five kids, who ranged in age from 5 to 11, a long goodbye. Ketcheson’s wife, Teena, had never seen her husband do that, and knowing that issues had been ramping up for a couple of weeks, started calling for help.
Meanwhile, Ketcheson went out to the field to plant soybeans.
“I was going to start in one end of the field and go walk out in front of the tractor,” he said. “I was at the point then where I thought if I was gone, that would be good for everybody around me.”
Ketcheson had planned the suicide for later in the day. When he came back for more seed, Teena approached him. There was a room ready for him at the psych ward. The police were on alert in case he wouldn’t go willingly and security was waiting at the hospital to make sure he got from the car into the hospital.
Ketcheson was in the hospital for five weeks, as the medication quickly helped. Some aren’t that lucky, and can be in the psych ward for as long as 18 months.
“People are always scared about going to the hospital,” he said. “It’s a pretty scary place to be, in a psych ward, until you get there and you realize it’s normal people around you with the same problem you have and it’s not the end of the world.”
Ketcheson isn’t alone. A story in the U.K. Guardian in December laid it out as a global problem: “An Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.”
There are numerous stressors that can impact a farmer’s mental health, most of it uncontrollable: Weather, crop prices, international trade deals, animal disease and planting and harvest issues. Compounding the problem is that access to mental health resources in rural areas can be limited or nonexistent.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those in farming, fishing and forestry had a suicide rate of 18.7 deaths per 100,000 Americans in 2015 (slightly above the U.S. national average of 16.9 per 100,000). That number jumps up to 22.8 per 100,000 for male farmers.
While occupational suicide rates haven’t been studied in Canada, in 2015, Andria Jones-Bitton of the University of Guelph conducted a national survey of farmer mental health. The survey was expecting about 300 responses; 1,100 answered the call. Seventy per cent of respondents were from Ontario.
The survey found that 40 per cent of producers across Canada reported that they would feel uneasy about seeking professional help due to what people might think. Thirty-five per cent of producers met the criteria for depression classification, 45 per cent of producers were classified as having high stress and 58 per cent of producers met the criteria for anxiety classification.
Jones-Bitton told Farmers Forum when the study was released that farmers surprisingly lack resilience (the ability to cope with stress and recover).
“(Farmers) are strong, they’re very clever, they’re savvy, and they’re able to adapt quite well,” she said. ”I had assumed given those characteristics their resilience would be really high. But what we found was that resilience was actually low.
“One gentleman said to me that people in the community think that if you’re depressed, you aren’t working hard enough; if you were working harder you wouldn’t have time to be depressed.”
The agricultural community is stepping up to help farmers, and the stigma isn’t as pronounced as it once was. The Lennox and Addington Federation of Agriculture launched a farmer wellness program last month, which provides up to three free counselling sessions at no cost to the 350 OFA members and their families in Lennox and Addington (see story on page A27). A counsellor will come to your home, if needed, and sessions can be done in person, over the phone or by video chat. This may be only the second of its kind of counselling program for farmers in Canada (the other program is in PEI).
Last November, when many Ontario farmers were stressed thanks to high vomitoxin levels in corn, the Grain Farmers of Ontario posted tips on how to deal with stress, and made sure to include numbers for crisis help lines.
The University of Guelph has developed a pilot project called “In the Know,” a proactive mental health literacy program tailored to farmers.
Meantime, Ketcheson is still on medication. Three years ago, he got back into livestock farming. He currently has 120 sheep, with plans to expand to 300 in the summer. He says having the livestock helps his mental health as it gives him a routine to follow every day.
Sometimes a person in depression needs a friend or a family member to get them help, he said.
“Are you prepared to have a loved one taken away against their will for treatment when there’s nothing else left?” he tweeted in late January. “To sign the papers saying they can’t be free until they’re ‘better’? To visit them through two or three sets of locked doors, with possibly dozens of other people there who have fallen just as far?”
He also said that while much of the literature surrounding mental illness recommends people seek help, it’s not that easy, said Ketcheson, who later found out his family has a history of depression. “Most of the time, they aren’t able to reach out, and they probably don’t even know they need help because they think they’re doing the best thing.”