I took a day off and unplugged completely. Shut off my phone, turned off the wifi, and headed to my basement to play one of my favourite childhood computer games. It was the type of day that in my earlier years I would have been ashamed to admit that I did such a thing, now I know that it is all part of taking care of me.
Farmers across the country have started to talk openly and honestly about mental health and it couldn’t have come soon enough. Farming is an incredibly rewarding occupation; we get to manage delicate biological systems that use every part of our brain and the fruits of our labour are the base of human life. The aforementioned biological systems however make our job stressful. We have many challenges that are beyond our control and with some regularity we face varying levels of disaster. We make decisions in real time and we don’t always get things right. Beyond the biological challenges, we have to manage price risk, human resources issues…the list goes on and on.
Research done at the University of Guelph by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton found that stress levels among Canadian farmers were two to four times higher than our counterparts in Europe. There is no Canadian data set for tracking farmer suicides but statistics from the US show that the rate of suicide among farmers was the highest of any occupation, almost 40% higher than construction which was next on the list. I was one of the 1100 farmers who filled out Dr. Jones-Bitton survey because there are few things as important to me as moving the discussion about mental health on the farm forward. It is so encouraging to see the research community support us as we seek better options for those of us who struggle on the farm.
I am no stranger to depression and anxiety; I have written and spoken numerous times about my battles with mental health. As I have gotten older, my approach to mental health has changed. Once upon a time, I felt that when it came to dealing with depression that there would be a finality to it, some sort of end point where I would feel better. Today my thoughts have changed; I believe that our mind is no different than any other muscle in the body. We can build it up through exercise, it can atrophy if not used correctly, but it never stops working entirely until death. To some, the thought of depression not being some sort of acute time period may seem disheartening but for me, the acceptance that mental health is a lifelong journey has made the lows easier to bear. More importantly, it has allowed me to build a regimen and support system that is making me more resilient for the challenges that farming throws my way.
So back to my day off…if farming is hard, expanding a farm business is even harder. Jess and I have been blessed since we founded our own farming operation and we have been able to grow our business over the past year and a half. This growth has not been easy and we are finding new bumps in the road at each step. For the past couple months it has felt like we are bouncing from one crisis to the next and I hit a wall. My tank was empty. So I decided to fill it up in the most expedient way I know how, a few hours of mindless activity playing a game from my childhood followed by a long sleep. I cannot explain how or why this makes me feel better but it does and my journey has taught me that self-care needs to take priority if things are getting rough. I would encourage you to think about your own mental health. No one questions why someone may dedicate themselves to physical fitness because it is generally accepted that keeping the body healthy is a smart thing to do. Treat your mind the same way. Take stock in how it is performing and don’t be afraid to work it out every once and awhile.
We will never be able to stop suicide entirely but we can sure do better at building a support system for our fellow farmers. Mental health services are woefully inadequate here in our rural areas so it is left to us, the members of the community to fill the void. Never underestimate the power you have by just being a decent person. If someone you know is struggling don’t run away from the difficult conversations, dive in head first with a message of universal love and acceptance. Don’t pretend to know how to make them feel better, just reassure them that they are loved and valued then help them find the help they need.