Farmers coping but are more isolated than ever, mental health specialist says
Ed Hand and Patrick Meagher
ODESSA — The mental health of Canadians continues to decline under COVID-19 restrictions, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Its latest March survey find the “second wave” is having a further impact, in particular in farm country.
“We did find the family farm was worse off than the general population,” said Andria Jones-Bitton Associate Professor of Epidemiology, department of population medicine and director of well-being programming at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. “We did see elevated levels of stress.”
It’s not surprising when you consider the farmer deals with so many stressors out of their control; fluctuating markets, the whim of the weather, and for many, working in solitude. One concern for Jones-Bitton is that farmers are not recovering as well. “We find there is a low level of resilience,” which is the measure of recovery from mental health issues. “They’re not bouncing back.”
The lack of resilience has a longer term impact as farmers try and push through despite not being able to put their finger on what is wrong and why they lack energy. They don’t recognize what they are dealing with which means they suffer longer and recovery gets pushed further away. One of the challenges is that “people are just learn- ing about (mental health) and trying to figure it out,” said Deborah Vanberkel, a Lennox and Addington dairy farmer and psychotherapist, who offers free counselling in the farming community.
When stress piles up, some farmers find solace in their work, something that Vanberkel concedes she would do. After one year in the pandemic, many farmers are “languishing,” she said, adding that farmers “are not diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Basically, we’re just trudging on.” COVID fatigue is “impacting every farmer absolutely,” she told Farmers Forum.
Farmers are in a unique situation, considering the long hours and isolation. COVID restrictions mean that farmers are even more isolated and miss those short visits to the dealership or with the milk truck driver, as well as the nixed lunch meetings and gatherings for church services.
Farmers have to focus on what they can control – such as their work on the farm and their emotions — and plan for positive outcomes, she said, noting that many people are taking a break from social media because it can be too negative and exhausting. Connecting with people regu- larly by phone or facetime can be very helpful, she said.
A CMHA survey found that 36 per cent of Ontarians say they’re experiencing very high or high stress (up from 30 per cent from last summer). It also found that 17 per cent say they’re always or very often depressed (up from 13 per cent one year ago). In the same survey, more than one quarter of Ontarians (27 per cent) are using more substances to cope (up from 21 per cent last summer).