LISTOWEL — Stewart Skinner has made no bones about reaching the brink of suicide in December 2012. The sixth-generation hog farmer didn’t go through with hanging himself in the barn that day. Instead, he reached out for help. He’s been a public advocate for farmer mental health ever since.
But COVID restrictions took a heavy toll. In January, 2022, he tweeted in part: “I watched the prosperity my partner and I had built since 2015 evaporate as COVID shutdowns and shipping delays derailed our supply chain and caused massive financial losses… paid therapy became such a negative trigger that I was worse off after an appointment than going in. I was sick, I was angry.
“People are made extremely uncomfortable by hearing stark truth about what goes on in the mind of a mentally ill person. Sure they happily tweet a hashtag but if you confront them with a personal lived experience that challenges their own world view they are no longer interested in your story.”
He added : “They don’t want to hear about how I was scared to walk by the stairs holding an infant child because of the voices that crept into my head telling me to toss the child over the railing. They want the good but not the ugly.”
Last year, as the pandemic retreated into the rearview mirror, Skinner wrote an article highlighting how the policies of the COVID era returned him to a dark place mentally — by pounding his business and cutting off access to people — his basketball buddies, his church community and the local greasy spoon. “Over the past two years, I have watched the model I constructed to keep my resilience up be torn apart, ironically, in the name of keeping me safe,” Skinner wrote in the Canadian Hog Journal in April 2022.
With an additional year of hindsight, Farmers Forum recently asked Skinner about the pandemic’s toll and his recovery.
Q. How are you doing today and what advice do you have for farmers dealing with mental issues, especially in the hog industry?
A. “I think one of the things that makes me incredibly lucky … I have a remarkable support system around me, and it starts with my wife and partner Jessica, and it branches out from there, to my parents … And we’re really lucky to have a core group of long-term, stable employees.
I think one of the biggest challenges for farmers, especially ones starting out, is you don’t have that, and in large part, it’s because you can’t afford to pay wages. You’ve got to do it yourself.
“I don’t have any magic wand… About 10 years ago, I had kind of a watershed moment where I was able to decouple my own personal happiness from financial performance. It’s not to say I don’t have plenty of days where I’m not stressed about money … but I don’t define myself by my finances anymore. I can be a good dad whether I’m broke, or I’m not. I can be a good husband whether I’m broke, or I’m not. It took me going to a different part of the world (Kenya in 2013) and being reminded that when you strip away everything, literally nothing else matters other than the people who love you and the people you love. And that was a big part of it.
“I did find during the pandemic that those long-held support systems were tested. My entire model of personal care was built around interacting with people. I’m a people person. I get energized by people. … That is what really got me. I’m not built to be alone. It’s not healthy for us to be kept apart.”
Q: From the article you wrote, it sounds as if you were backsliding on mental health.
A. “Oh, big time. Christmas 2021 was kind of the darkest time for me. I had a period of about two days where I didn’t move, I didn’t speak. I was right back on the edge of that pit that, the first time, took me the better part of two years to get out of. And I think that’s why I, at times, would chafe publicly so much against this idea that you were a horrible person if you didn’t stay home (to comply with COVID restrictions). It’s not that simple. As a person who has spoken out about my own mental health … people reach out to me. Sometimes a farmer just wants to talk to another farmer. And I found in that (pandemic), there were more than a few phone calls from people saying, ‘I can’t do this, just being on my own all the time.’
“I really backslid with alcohol … Six months into the pandemic, you realize, holy moly, I’ve gone to the shed with the guys every day, and you’re drinking beer every day…. I think that’s an area where I was not alone. The addiction piece and alcohol addiction is not something we talk about a lot in agriculture. My self-care model that didn’t get taken away was the LCBO. And when you’re only left with one piece of a complex care puzzle, what happens? That kind of fills the void. It was a difficult time.”
Q. What got you past those two difficult days in the Christmas of 2021?
A. “January wasn’t much better. I woke up and said, ‘I can’t drink for a while.’ And I cleaned myself up … it was drying out that kind of brought me back.”
Q. Do you have a brighter outlook now?
A. “I’ve had a renewed sense of not defining my happiness and my selfworth by the farm’s finances. It has not been a fun couple of years in pigs, whether you’re a commercial or commodity producer. The good news for me is that even though there have been continued business challenges, I’ve been able to keep a fairly clear head and keep working through them versus being crippled by inaction.”