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Research measures farmers’ resilience during tough times

So, what should we wish for: low food prices, or healthy farmers?

Both options would be nice. Rising food prices are consumers’ biggest concern. They were already predicted to rise up to five per cent this year before the price of grain started skyrocketing, owing to short supplies. Now, consumers’ prices will likely rise even more.

Farmers benefit when prices rise, although their costs usually rise with them. But overall, better prices give farmers an opportunity to replace worn equipment, pay down debt and generally, breathe a little easier than when prices are low.

It gives them a mental health break. And they need it.

A bit over five years ago, University of Guelph researcher Andria Jones-Bitton found farmers’ mental health had become a real problem. Stress, depression, anxiety and burnout were challenging their resilience. Rates of these conditions were appreciably higher with farmers than with the general population.

Jones-Bitton discovered farmers were coping poorly with tough conditions on and off their operations, owing to consumer suspicions about food quality, along with activist pressures.

Her academically sound findings quantified the problem for the first time in the history of Canadian farming. That in itself is incredible. But so was the response from the farm community; in particular, the acceptance of her findings, the ownership of the problem, and the determination to do something about it.

Stoic agriculture finally had a shroud of secrecy ripped away. And it was relieved. Some significant farmers’ mental health programs, initiatives and workshops for farmers followed.

Now, are things better?

Jones-Bitton wants to find out. Through an online survey, she’s embarking on new research with farmers to give her a five-year update into how mental health issues have changed, for better or worse.

For example, are producers satisfied with mental health support programs? Has the stigma around help-seeking subsided? Is suicide and substance use decreasing?

The findings from this study may inform policy and programming related to mental health and well-being in agriculture, she says. And having farmers reflect on their own mental well-being, along with developing an increased understanding of their coping and resilience, could be a positive experience – it could lead to a better awareness of mental resources, coping strategies and emotional capability, she says.

A mitigating factor – one you would expect to heighten anxiety – is the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is the big ‘new’ thing impacting farmers,” she says. “There’s been so much change and uncertainty around the pandemic and the measures being used for disease control.”

So while she and her co-researcher Dr. Briana Hagan have maintained a number of the same scales used in the original survey to compare between the five-year timepoints, they have also included COVID-specific questions.

Another change is gender differences in mental health and the stressors experienced between the genders. As in other parts of society, diversity, equity and inclusion are garnering more attention. Jones-Bitton wonders if more gender differences will show up in the new survey data.

And finally, the researchers are asking questions to explore substance use. This matter has come up frequently in their stakeholder working group meetings and in networking with farmers.

The survey is live now. The researchers are appealing to the agriculture community to get involved. They want to get more responses than the first survey, which was about 1,100. The more information they have to work with, the better.

Farmers can access the survey online.

We need farmers to be healthy, in body and mind. This kind of research is crucial for understanding how to help better health happen.

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