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Urban Cowboy: Weather much more stressful than death to some farmers

When asked what they feel stressed about, only 2 per cent of farmers polled chose death
Stock image shows a nightmare for many farmers - hail

In a recent Twitter poll, nearly 600 farmers ticked four boxes describing what they feel the most stress about. 

Two per cent ticked “death.” You’d think it would be more. 

But this was telling: a whopping 46 per cent of respondents -- the largest group -- said the most challenging matters were agriculture related, particularly crops and weather.

Indeed, for most of us, weather is an incidental. For example, if it rains too much, or not enough, we’re minimally impacted, at least in the big picture. Our livelihood is mostly unaffected.

Not so for farmers though. It’s constant pressure, it’s stressful and it impacts mental health.

So what to do about it? Well, experts say to start by acknowledging it. The turning point for such awareness was mental health-related research that emerged from survey results of more than 1,000 farmers by University of Guelph researcher Andria Jones-Bitton.

It showed as many as one-third of farmers may be suffering from depression. 

As well, 45 per cent of respondents had high stress. Another 58 per cent were classified with varying levels of anxiety, and 35 per cent with depression.

Overall, those figures were two to four times higher than farmers studied in places such as the United Kingdom and Norway.

And it opened the floodgates. Since Jones-Bitton’s survey, headlines have appeared routinely in farm and urban media about the matter, and the reasons behind it. 

These include isolation and loneliness, frustration over being helpless to deal with certain situation (like the poll above revealed) and a general unwillingness by the stoic farm community to discuss such intimate matters, those that might suggest weakness.

Jones-Bitton is now looking to expand her research with one-on-one farmer interviews, to further reveal the mental health challenges they face.

One area I suspect she’ll find mostly untouched is how mental health challenges on the farm affect children, on farms everywhere. 

And that’s one reason the Global 4-H Network Summit, taking place this week in Ottawa, dedicated a session to mental health and awareness.

Leaders from 70 countries have converged in Ottawa for this event, 4-H’s second global summit, with more than 500 4-H youth, professionals and volunteer leaders.  

On Friday, the final day of the summit, Scottish Association of Young Farmers Clubs are scheduled to present a session called “Mental Health – Breaking the Stigma – Are Ewe OK?”

This session highlights a program and social media campaign the association started last year in response to pressures on the UK farming industry.

In Scotland, statistics show nine out of 10 young people facing poor mental health receive negative treatment from others. 

Scottish association chair Stuart Jamieson cites estimates that one-quarter of his county’s population will face mental health challenges during their lifetime.

He says if those same figures apply to the young farmers’ association – and there’s no reason to think they don’t -- that’s more than 800 of its members.

So the “Are Ewe OK?” program “aims to educate members about mental health, so they have a better understanding of the topic, can help others, understand that mental health is just as important as physical health and so that we can break the stigma surrounding the topic,” it says.

And, it notes, making use of social media means such campaigns don’t require big budgets, another point that will be made at the summit.

Erin Smith, 4-H Canada Program Director and 2017 Global 4-H Network Summit Program Co-Chair, says as an organization, 4-H believes in promoting the health and well-being -- both mental and physical -- of youth and their communities.

“Through our positive youth development model, we are empowering young people to address many issues they care about and find solutions to the challenges they face,” she says.

“As our youth members tell us, mental health is an important component of healthy living. It’s important for us to have focus at the Global Summit on the Environment and Healthy Living, one of our key programmatic areas to support dialogue among youth leaders and professionals.”

Good luck to the summit leaders and congratulations for taking on such a weighty and important issue.