The elephant in the barn?- Update on mental health study of ag producers

Last fall Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton asked farmers across Canada to participate in the first-ever national mental wellness survey of those who produce our food, and had an overwhelming response! Since speaking with her last fall Dr. Jones- Bitton has had a chance to analyze some of the results and below shares some initial feedback with the Ag Women’s Network. Thank you Dr. Jones- Bitton for shedding light on this subject and helping to educate us all on mental health.

Here is the link to the initial article:


The elephant in the Barn?

Just over a year ago, I began exploring the mental health of agricultural producers in Canada. To some, it might appear odd that a veterinarian and epidemiologist would study this area; to me, it was a natural fit. As someone trained in veterinary medicine, I’ve had the pleasure of learning about the agricultural industry and the terrific men and women (and families) that keep it running. As an epidemiologist, I’m trained to investigate and uncover factors associated with health and disease in populations. That, along with personal interests in mental health and a great respect for producers, made it a natural journey for me to embark upon.

There was also a need: there were too many stories of farm families affected by suicide, and a relative lack of Canadian data on mental health in agriculture. I wanted to do my part to help address some of the issues I believed our agricultural industry was facing.

Last fall, my research group and I started a survey to explore a number of mental health issues amongst Canadian producers. Initially, it was intended to be a small, pilot study of livestock producers in Ontario, but we soon learned that producers from other industries and provinces were attempting to take the survey online. This seemed indicative of widespread interest in mental health in agriculture, and so we extended the survey across Canada and included all agricultural commodities.

Since then, I’ve had countless conversations with producers (and their family members), veterinarians, industry reps, government personnel, psychologists, and social workers, about mental health in agriculture. A common theme in these discussions is how important an issue it is, and how much it needs to be addressed. We’ve talked about whether it has always been an issue, or whether the problems are growing (I suspect both). I perceive a sense of relief from many people in agriculture that we are “finally” ready to start talking about the proverbial “elephant in the barn”.

We are indebted to the over 1100 producers across Canada that took part in the national survey. We used validated mental health scales to collect data on a number of outcomes. The results thus far indicate valid cause for concern. Surveyed producers had elevated levels of perceived stress, depression, anxiety, emotional exhaustion, and cynicism, higher than the scale population norms (i.e. the comparison groups from the general population). Surveyed producers also had lower levels of resilience (a state of wellbeing that helps us ‘bounce back’ from psychological or physical stress). This low resilience came as a surprise to me – every producer I know is resourceful and keeps on going when the tough gets tough – I had assumed they would also score high in resilience. But, we need to recognize: being tough isn’t the same as being resilient. Our producers may still be producing, but it doesn’t mean that the constant pressures they face aren’t taking a toll on their mental health and quality of life.

On a positive note, producers also indicated positive attitudes towards help-seeking behaviours, and expressed a lack of satisfaction with the current level of support they receive from industry. Why is the latter positive? It means they want to see their industries more engaged with mental health.

There is a wealth of data from the national survey that we are still analysing. For example, we are exploring whether the mental health indices are associated with certain “types” of producers (e.g. industries, provinces, ages). As we discover new findings, we will be sure to release them to the agricultural community so that we can keep the discussion going.

We are also moving forward with our work. In the new year, we are starting a project that will look at the lived experience of mental health in agriculture, mental health literacy training, and how to best respond to producer mental health during times of agricultural emergency. We know how essential it is to have widespread stakeholder engagement for this to be successful. It is only by producers, vets, industry, and the mental health professions working together that we can create effective and lasting change. We applaud the OMAFRA, Egg Farmers of Ontario, Ontario Sheep Marketing Agency, and Ontario Federation of Agriculture for supporting this new work, and thus, supporting the health of their members.

I can’t think of another profession that positively impacts as many people, and is fraught with as many inherent challenges, as farming. Producers feed, clothe, and employ us (1 in 8 jobs!). They run their own businesses, take care of our nation’s livestock, and help take care of the land. They do amazing work, and they face struggles in doing so. I’m grateful that we are talking about the elephant in the barn, and are moving forward to help empower the people who give us so much.

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