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‘It’s a culture of tough it out or suck it up’: Sask. producers pushing for mental health awareness
Published Wednesday, January 31, 2018 2:06PM CST
Megz Reynolds remembers feeling isolated.
It was the harvest of 2016. Disease and hail had wiped out her family’s crops. She and her husband Liam had next-to-nothing to show for a year of work.
“You feel like you can’t provide for your family, and that’s a horrible way to feel,” Reynolds said. “We feel that the only value that we have is our life insurance policy.”
Reynolds moved to her farm in southwest Saskatchewan in 2013. Before that, she worked in the film industry in Calgary and Vancouver. After apprenticing as a heavy-duty mechanic, she and Liam decided it made more sense for her to stay at home with her two young children.
She was a long way from home and her lifelong friends – who she had made in the film industry – and struggled to understand her new life and the difficulties she faced.
“The people that were closest to me that I could talk to about everything, they really didn’t understand my stresses or what I was going through,” she said.
Farming is a difficult industry. Producers are at the mercy of the weather – and it’s entirely out of their control.
“You get one chance a year. You put that seed in the ground and you do everything in your power to make sure that it is taken care of, it’s protected, it’s growing properly,” Reynolds explained. “If that’s destroyed, you don’t get to try again until next year. So that really rocks your foundation for not just your income source, but also how you view yourself.”
Sharing her story
In December, Reynolds was awake at 1:30 a.m. She was stressed about paying bills and getting through the next year. After reading an American publication about the high rate of suicide in the farming industry, she decided it was time to act.
“I got really mad and really upset that, as a whole, the agricultural industry globally is hurting so much and nobody’s talking about it,” she said. “Even outside the industry, nobody knows about it.”
The next day, Reynolds wrote a blog.
“I am a farmer, I’m struggling,” she wrote. “I am not alone.”
Reynolds isn’t the only producer struggling with mental health.
In June, Kim Keller, a Melfort-area farmer, learned about the recent suicide of a farmer. She posted on social media, asking the agriculture community to increase mental health support. Her post sparked a movement of producers ready to break the stigma in Saskatchewan.
#Ag we gotta do more.— Kim Keller (@kimkkeller) June 24, 2017
I rcv'd a msg yesterday that kept me up thinking of how we do more. Farm stress is real. Suicide is real. 1/
“With people sharing on social media and being brave enough to put themselves out there, they are letting other people know that it’s okay and that we’re working to end the stigma surrounding mental health in agriculture,” Reynolds said.
Keller’s post inspired Lesley Kelly and her husband, Matt, to open up about their own mental health difficulties. The couple’s farm is about two hours north of Regina, separating them from their extended family and leaving them feeling alone.
“The pressures of farming are quite a bit,” Kelly said.
In rural communities, neighbours could be miles away. That adds to the feeling of isolation – but social media can help make that distance seem a bit shorter.
“Social media is a great tool to use to be able to reach out, develop friendships and to share your story,” Kelly said.
‘We were digging our own graves’: The pressures of farming
A study by the University of Guelph found that 35 per cent of farmers in Canada are dealing with depression – and 40 per cent of farmers with depression won’t seek help. Additionally, 45 per cent of farmers live with high stress every day and 58 per cent are living with anxiety.
To Reynolds, the numbers aren’t surprising. She says farmers need to be passionate about their jobs in order to make it in a difficult industry.
“In order to follow our dreams of farming, we were digging our own graves,” she said.
Breaking the stigma
Producers face isolation, risk and the challenges of long days and nights of work while out in the field.
“In agriculture, we pride ourselves in resilience, being strong,” Kelly said. “It’s a culture of tough it out or suck it up and don’t show emotion, don’t cry. That can be our greatest weakness as well.”
Saskatchewan producers are trying to spark a conversation about the importance of mental health awareness for farmers here at home, and all across the country.
“This isn’t just a Canadian agriculture problem. It’s global,” Reynolds said.
Do More Ag foundation
Keller and Kelly teamed with Himanshu Singh and Kirk Muyres to launch the Do More Ag foundation – aimed at providing better supports to producers all across the country.
“We want to champion mental health in agriculture,” Kelly said.
The foundation officially launched on Tuesday morning at the FarmTech Conference in Edmonton.
“Our vision is to change the culture in ag, where all producers are encouraged and supported and empowered to take care of their minds,” Kelly said. “It was an overwhelmingly positive response.”
The not-for-profit is designed to provide additional support for farmers who are struggling with mental health. Mobile Crisis Services in Saskatchewan provide a farm stress line at 1-800-667-4442 and there are online supports for people who may not be able to make it to urban centres.
The Do More Ag foundation wants to improve and enhance mental health.
“It’s a way to keep the conversation going, it’s a way to try to end the stigma surrounding mental health,” Reynolds said.
It will provide a place to find resources and training, allowing people to recognize mental health difficulties – in themselves and others.
“You hear all too often ‘so-and-so committed suicide’ and nobody knew they were struggling,” Reynolds said.
Moving forward, the group wants to help reduce the strain on farmers – and offer a better opportunity to deal with mental health.
“Our goal is to reduce farm suicide, ultimately,” Kelly said about the foundation. “We want to break barriers, reduce that stigma so there’s open conversation, a safe environment for people to speak up and say ‘I need help.’”