Given the ongoing stressors in the pork sector, we must support mental health and assist producers.
by Geoff Geddes
Ups and downs are facts of life for pork producers, but what happens when you’ve fallen psychologically and you can’t get up?
How do you cope when depression, stress or anxiety appear uninvited and refuse to leave?
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Though farmers pride themselves on toughing it out and never complaining, they can sometimes be their own worst enemies. Keeping a stiff upper lip during a mental health crisis could hurt your relationships, business and well-being.
“Research at the University of Guelph by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and Briana Hagen has consistently shown that producers have greater mental health stress compared to the general public,” says Andrea De Groot, managing director of the Ontario Pork Industry Council.
“Our industry has experienced so many changes in recent years. As farms get larger and more complex, there is more on the line.”
At the same time, the pork industry is extremely volatile on several fronts, including pork and feed prices, disease threats, trade issues and consumer demands.
“The sheer number of issues, and the speed with which they arise, separates the pork industry from other commodities in terms of stress and burnout,” says De Groot.
While producers share common challenges, the effect on their mental health can vary widely.
“This is not a one-size-fits-all situation,” says De Groot. “Each person is impacted in his or her own way. Some producers may have difficulties with their farming operation but not have it affect their family.
With others, mental health issues may touch all facets of their life.
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“For many farmers, the line between home and business is blurry, and the farm is a part of their identity.”
While the agricultural community has made great progress in recognizing the importance of mental health, many observers still feel we have a long way to go.
“Many in agriculture struggle to define mental health and to recognize differences among various mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, high stress and suicide,” says De Groot. “As our communities increase the awareness of mental health, the self-recognition amongst farmers will also increase.”
Though awareness of – and attitudes toward – mental health issues may be improving in Canadian society more generally, pork producers don’t always reap the benefits.
“There is more open dialogue today on a national level around mental health, yet those campaigns have less of a reach in rural areas,” says David Grauwiler, executive director of the Alberta division of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).
“While there has been some reduction in stigma in urban settings, especially in younger demographics, that stigma is more prevalent as you get farther out. As well, whether you need your gallbladder removed or are dealing with depression, (you have) less access to treatment and other resources away from the major centres.”
With the Internet, mental health treatment is just a mouse click away – or is it?
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“Online access to support services can be complicated,” says Grauwiler. “We think in terms of e-mental health, but Egypt has better cell coverage and more access to Wi-Fi than Alberta, so there are significant gaps. In fact, the whole area of e-mental health, which could be a solution for access to counsellors in rural areas, is completely underdeveloped in this province.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t kept pace with technology to create virtual access where physical access is problematic,” he adds.
In response to the various challenges in rural communities, the CMHA’s Alberta division is hosting the Rural Mental Health Community Development Project.
Alberta Health has provided $1.6 million over three and a half years to develop an Alberta Rural Mental Health Network and support 150 rural Alberta communities to create community mental health roadmaps and action plans, the CMHA website says.
Today’s Alberta economy is another aggravating factor for mental health stressors.
“In the past, when agriculture was struggling, people could find a job in the oil industry, and vice versa,” says Grauwiler to Better Pork.
“Now, with both sectors under tremendous pressure, we are hearing dire reports of farm families in distress. That pressure is amplified by farmers feeling they must keep pace with their neighbours and not lose ground or seem weak or out of control,” he adds.
“Against that backdrop, (farmers) are not likely to move easily into health-seeking behaviours when they have a problem.”
Increasingly, what Grauwiler calls an “irrational sense of self-reliance” is causing an inordinate number of rural men to pay the ultimate price.
“About 600 Albertans die each year from suicide, and men in their 40s, 50s and 60s are overrepresented. Many of these men come from rural areas,” he says.
Some of the factors that trigger stress and anxiety for pork producers can also raise their risk of suicide.
“Farming is demanding, physical work where you often face problems outside your control, such as China shutting off your canola and pork sales,” says Mara Grunau, executive director of the Centre for Suicide Prevention in Calgary, Alta.
“Farming also involves a lot of isolation, so there’s unlikely to be a co-worker nearby who will notice a problem arising.”
Isolation makes the role of friends and family in suicide prevention all the more critical.
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“Our message to those struggling with mental health issues is that, even if you feel alone, you’re not alone,” says Grunau. “If you have symptoms of depression, you need to know that they are not normal feelings and they are treatable. Help is available.
“If someone close to you is struggling, realize that they often just can’t reach out for help, so you need to reach out to them. Ask them the question directly: ‘Are you thinking of suicide?’” she says.
“If they are, they will probably tell you. This is your chance to reassure them that you are there for support, and together you can call the crisis line and get the help they need.”
In all provinces except Manitoba and New Brunswick, people who need help can dial 211 and ask for guidance. Using the associated databases, they can identify local resources and help navigate the greater system.
Using 211.ca is another option. This online resource is accessible in all provinces except P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.
People who aren’t in a crisis and don’t need immediate help can call their local CMHA offices.
Another national source of help is the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a non-profit organization that addresses mental health in Canada’s ag industry.
“We were founded on the three pillars of awareness, community and research,” says Adelle Stewart, executive director of the foundation. “We provide a safe place for people to have the conversation around mental health, and the response has been overwhelming.
“People are standing up after presentations to tell their stories, and local organizations are rallying to partner with us.”
The Do More Agriculture Foundation is running a pilot project. Its representatives travel across Canada conducting mental health workshops in partnership with Farm Credit Canada. The non-profit also provides important resources online.
“Our website links producers to appropriate resources,” says Stewart. “We act as a conduit to simplify all the options and help (farmers) find support.”
You’ve got a friend
Ultimately, whether you deal with depression, stress or other mental health challenges, support is essential to your recovery and, in some cases, survival.
“We have a person (who was) promoted to a higher and more stressful position. (He) was a manager who used to be in the hog barn and was then elected field boss,” says Martin Waldner, a hog boss with Hartland Hutterite Colony near Bashaw, Alta., and a director with Alberta Pork. “You never know how much stress people can take until you put them in a position like that. He wound up having a nervous breakdown.
“As a colony, we try to always have support for people in that circumstance and never leave them alone. Even so, we have seen it where we thought things were under control and missed the signs that depression was still a problem. It cost someone a life.”
Though colonies can offer internal support – and can even offer the option of having the person never work again but still have security – other producers may have fewer resources.
“It’s a lot tougher for an independent farm family. They may not have anyone to pick up the slack; they are already struggling to keep the farm going,” says Waldner. “In that case, there are still support groups out there and places people can call to talk, so they shouldn’t try to fight through it alone.”
Mental health illnesses are complex. A range of causes and possible solutions exist, but helping people feel less alone is a good place to start.
“As pork producers, we sometimes get so buried in our work that we don’t take enough time for each other and notice if someone else is struggling,” says Waldner. “We need to always keep our eyes open and look for signs of distress. We must ensure that if someone wants to talk, we take the time to listen.” BP