Farmers at much higher risk of suicide
Beware of chronic stress, heavy workload, psychotherapist warns
A Western Ontario farmer was under such a heavy burden of stress for so long that when he read a cruel social media message directed at his personal life and family, the wrong switch flipped in his head and he grabbed his rifle, got into his truck and drove off. When he stopped, he was alone and pulled the trigger.
That tragic story is a reminder that we can handle only so much stress for so long and then just about anything can trigger us.
Chronic stress among farmers, however, is worse than many think, says psychotherapist Lauren Van Ewyk, who is also a Sarnia-area sheep farmer. Canadian farmers are more than two times as likely to commit suicide than the general population in Canada, she said. “Rural people only make up 30 per cent of the population, so this is really a significant number.”
She hesitates, however, to call farm mental health issues a crisis. “There are many farmers thriving and many satisfied with their lives and have enough ‘cushion’ to compensate for hardships,” she said. “We are at a point in which we need to pay attention to avoid a crisis.”
But things are getting worse. “We have generational trauma that has not been cared for adequately,” she said. “We have ongoing chronic forms of stress. In my opinion, and according to research mental health has worsened since 2016.”
Farm men and women are different when it comes to suicide, Van Ewyk stressed. Based on U.S. studies, farm men are five times more likely to die by suicide than farm women. But farm women are seven times as likely to think about suicide and twice as likely to suffer depression, she said.
There are also many attempts of suicide before actually completing the act. Rural women will attempt suicide 5 times, on average, before actually succeeding. In urban populations, women will make 25 attempts before actually committing suicide. Rural men will attempt suicide 3 times before actually committing suicide while urban men will first make 9 or 10 attempts. One reason for this dramatic difference is that farmers have easier access to rifles and equipment that are sometimes used, she said.
As dramatic, a 2021 University of Guelph survey of almost 1,200 farmers across the country, found that 25 % of farmers have had suicidal thoughts. To some that sounds moot as we all have a bad day. But Van Ewyk says you have to factor in that farmers often have more stress in their lives coming from things beyond their control, such as input costs, commodity prices, weather, equipment breaking down, disease and employees not showing up to work.
Many older farmers don’t realize how much younger farmers are struggling. “We have a lot of young farmers juggling with way more debt,” she said. “I have talked to farmers who said it’s not that big a deal. I went through the 80s when we had 20 per cent interest rates but what was the base cost of land? You factor that in and it’s a very expensive capital investment and the young people are managing a great debt load and both are working off the farm to support that and it becomes more complicated.”
Chronic stress coupled with a constant heavy workload are two things to watch for as key indicators of mental health going downhill. Long periods of stress can also cause physiological repercussions as a farmer can experience a kind of brain fog in which the farmer begins to have trouble analyzing or making decisions and has difficulty weighing pros and cons. When stresses become chronic it “leads to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness,” she said, adding that it only takes one bad event on a bad day for a lethal outcome.
Farmers often think things are going fine when they are not. Farm women can be overwhelmed because they are so stretched by working on the farm, doing the bookkeeping, managing the kids and in-laws and working off-farm, she said. “Women are more likely to experience anxiety, depression and exhaustion than men.”
Earlier this year, Van Ewyk launched the National Farmer Mental Health Alliance, which has partnered with numerous groups, including the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario and the Canadian Association of Social Workers, and offers mental health support to organizations through webinars and speaking engagements. The alliance offers 12-hour training sessions to help therapists deal specifically with farmer issues. Van Ewyk said she has been working specifically with farmers for the past 10 years.