Mental Health in Agriculture- Why aren't we talking about it?
Up until about a year ago I had never given much thought to mental illness. I had heard the stats and read articles. While I did have friends and relatives who suffered from it and understood it - probably better than most - it had never occurred to me that it could happen to me.
I grew up on a farm, which as you can all imagine meant there was always something going on or needing to be done. My parents worked tirelessly around the clock to keep the business going, in addition to raising my sisters and I, which wasn’t a task for the faint of heart.
Just like you, I had also heard all the stories about mental illness and how it could affect anyone, at anytime and still, I somehow viewed it as a “first world problem.”An affliction for those who didn’t have enough to do to keep themselves busy. So when I started experiencing sudden bouts of anxiety and panic attacks, I was unsure of how to proceed. I spent several months treating each symptom or attack as stand alone, viewing each incident as the result of a very specific set of circumstances, unrelated to anything that happened before. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t even a prime candidate for that type of thing. I was busy. I worked full-time, I was volunteering several nights a week. I was active. I ran, did yoga, and played sports. I had close relationships with friends and family, which is why I assumed that each individual episode wasn’t or couldn’t be the sign of mental illness. I then tried to think of ways I could stop the attacks from happening, could I add more to my already overflowing plate? Eat different? Exercise more? The reality was nothing I did stopped it. In fact, the more I let it go on, the worse it got. It wasn’t until one of my sisters caught me mid-panic attack and I spent the better part of a day in full anxiety mode that I was able to acknowledge that i wasn’t going to go away on its own.
It was my mentality about mental illness that in retrospect shocked me the most. Why was it that when symptoms began presenting themselves in my own life, I shrugged them off? The same symptoms, if seen in a friend or family member, would have caused me to encourage them to visit the doctor.
In preparation for our discussion this week, I wanted to get a picture of what is currently out there regarding mental illness in agriculture.
As it turns out - not much. A Google search of ‘mental illness in agriculture’ turned up a half-dozen research articles, mostly from the UK and Australia, who had conducted basic research into the prevalence of mental health issues in agricultural producers. There were no news articles, no op-eds and only one video describing health issues among producers that briefly mentioned mental health issues.
The most shocking part is that all research done to date clearly shows that rates of depression and suicide are much higher for farmers than any other industries. So why aren’t people talking about this? Why aren’t we talking about this?
After speaking with Andria Britton-Jones, a vet and researcher at the University of Guelph who is currently conducting a study of Canadian farmers regarding mental illness for producers, I quickly began to realize that the common opinions about mental illness of those in the agriculture industry were in line with what my views had been. I began to realize some of the factors that contributed to my own opinions regarding my own problems are also very much still present in rural areas and the agriculture industry. As I mentioned before, very few studies have been conducted to address mental illness for producers. This is in spite of the fact that rates of suicide and depression are higher for producers than most professions. Andria and her colleagues decided to pursue this research after both experiencing or hearing anecdotal evidence of vets observing visual signs of depression and anxiety of producers that they visited.
Andria had ideas of some of the unique conditions that producers experience that could help explain these high rates of mental illness. Some of which includes:
overall poor health (inactive, overweight, irregular visits to the doctor)
irregular weather conditions and poor yields
overworking, or never being able to ‘leave work’
The list goes on and on. However, I must note that there was one item on her list that really hit home for me. Some early anecdotal evidence suggests that - among farmers- mental illness may be considered a sign of a poor ethic. As many of us know, for producers having a poor work ethic is about the worst thing you can have. But, due to lack of discussion around this topic this has become,in both urban and rural areas, mental illness is viewed as a weakness and something that is and can only be experienced by those who do not work hard enough.
This week on AWN, we want to continue to bring awareness to this issue and hopefully start the conversation about mental illness in agriculture. We hope that this conversation will break the stigma about the real health dangers of not treating mental illness but also encourage people to seek help and realize that mental illness is not weakness or laziness but a very real danger to our friends and family. We will be doing this to help promote #BellLetsTalk which raises money for mental health initiatives in Canada on Wednesday, January 27th.