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Farmers’ mental health woes worsen – and affect women harder

The picture of Canadian farmers’ beleaguered mental health just got clearer…and it’s not a pretty sight.

A study released Monday by University of Guelph researchers shows that compared to a survey conducted five years ago, farmers’ mental health is worse than the general population in almost every outcome investigated.

They say traits they examined, including exhaustion and cynicism (two of the three components of burnout), stress, anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and lower resilience, speak of a grim reality.

One out of every four farmers surveyed said their life was not worth living, wish they were dead or thought of taking their own life in the last 12 months.

“It’s a very troubling situation,” says population medicine Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton, who conducted the study with Dr. Briana Hagen and Master of Science student Rochelle Thompson.“We need and want Canadian farmers to be stronger than ever, especially as we face huge worldwide food production questions. Unfortunately, from a mental health perspective, that doesn’t appear to be case.”

The research revealed that women farmers were experiencing more dire effects than men in every aspect of mental health that was examined. Jones-Bitton saw women with higher scores in the 2015-16 survey too, but she the differences now seem more pronounced.

“I suspect for women farmers, it heavily relates to role conflict whereby women – in addition to working on-farm and potentially off-farm – are responsible for other roles like ‘default parent,’ household operations, and go-to person for support,” she says. “This, in addition to the pressures of farming and the pandemic, places a large burden on women.”

The only exception concerned alcohol use – also troubling, of course – where men had significantly higher scores than women.

The research, funded by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, involved nearly 1,200 participants from all commodity groups across Canada, from February to May 2021.  At that time, the pandemic had reared up again, and heading into spring, the mood in the farming community was suppressed. 

The researchers say the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated an already tenuous situation. During that time, mental health problems related to high stress, burnout, anxiety and depression accelerated across all of society, including the farm community.

Jones-Bitton’s pioneering research in this area established Canada as a world leader in understanding farmers’ mental health. She has long advocated for a strong call to action for evidence-based, coordinated research and programming to provide support for farmer mental health and well-being in Canada.

She says this study highlights opportunities for stress management training to better support Canadian farmers’ resilience and growth. As well, she says, it also confirms the need to bring together and support professionally trained individuals to develop and deliver mental health programming for agriculture, and work with farming stakeholders and researchers to formally evaluate the programming to ensure safe and effective mental health treatment and prevention.

“The more we learn from research, the more we understand the problems and possible ways to address them,” she says.

Jones-Bitton says the research team plans to update the findings every five years.

And meanwhile, spring planting once again gets underway, for a highly challenged farming community.

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