The high cost of stress, down on the farm
I drove myself to the hospital exhibiting heart-attack symptoms and left with none. This has happened twice. And both times I left the urgent care with a clean bill of health.
The attending physician would sensitively sidestep toward what to him was the obvious conclusion: anxiety.
“Do you have a history of anxiety?” he would ask. “Have you ever experienced panic attacks?”
It never occurred to me that physical symptoms as real and specific as chest pain could stem from anxiety, a state of being that seems too nebulous and ethereal to have any physiological connection. Nor did I consider myself anxious.
Many farmers spend their days alone. They work alone. They troubleshoot alone. And they shoulder the farm’s problems alone
Adapting to a schedule that has become increasingly busy and demanding has been a challenge. It requires that I pay special attention to my mental health, ensuring that I routinely balance the things that deplete me with activities that recharge.
Canadian farmers are by and large familiar with weathering storms. It’s an assumed clause in the job description. We do it all the time. In southern Manitoba, right now, it’s cold and windy and there’s enough snow built-up that I’m not sure you’d make it down my driveway with a two-wheel-drive vehicle. This is not uncommon for January.
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In whiteout blizzard conditions my wife and I feel alone on our farm. But that’s more of an observation than a fear. We have the tools and machinery to survive. And, if those all fail, we have neighbours who would ensure our safety.
Things change, however, when the things that need dealing with are in our heads. We don’t feel as confident calling a neighbour for help. The steps needed in order to survive the storm are not as clear.
Many farmers spend their days alone. They work alone. They troubleshoot alone. And they shoulder the farm’s problems alone. And, while any farmer would be able to tell you exactly where to purchase a new cultivator shovel, they may not know where to go for help dealing with the nagging and intrusive thought that their farm isn’t going to make it another year. Or, worse yet, that they aren’t going to make it another year.
Some farms are miles or hours from the nearest community. And some farms have poor or nonexistent cellphone coverage. Isolation and loneliness are physical realities that become exponentially more dangerous when they become mental realities, as well.
Strength. Endurance. Survival. Perseverance. These are the words through which many farmers judge themselves. To be known in connection to any of them is to have built a solid legacy. To have found the last growing season stressful, mentally, is tantamount to saying you’re a lesser farmer.
My wife and I own slightly less than 100 acres of land. It’s not much, by most Canadian farming metrics. But the payments are high. And the stress associated with our new and growing operation is tied to managing the cash-flow demands we have now with an eye for what those demands are going to look like as we purchase more acres.
The federal government is currently taking a deep look into the issue of mental health among farmers. They have opened themselves to receive personal anecdotes from producers across Canada. According to iPolitics, many farmers report being under extreme pressure and some have contemplated suicide due to stress and isolation.
The full report is expected to be released this year.
In November, Agriculture Minister Lawrence MacAulay acknowledged the mental-health concerns that are specifically plaguing the agriculture industry and announced a campaign that will see ag-lender Farm Credit Canada team up with 4-H Canada to provide a support network for youth.
On Jan. 7, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Ernie Hardeman, raised his voice on the matter, announcing a public awareness campaign aimed at shedding light on the mental-health challenges that face farmers.
“Farming can be a tough business, one that takes a toll on farmers and their families,” he said, in a press release. “We want to address the stigma that still surround mental health and help people find the resources that can make a difference.”
The stigmas are not going away any time soon. Farmers are culturally known to be hearty and callous toward things as seemingly petty as insecurity and negative thoughts.
The next time you’re driving outside of the city and you see just one yard amid thousands of acres of unoccupied land, know that as lonely as that farm looks is as lonely as some farmers feel.
It’s January. Traditionally, this month is a dark one, mentally. Take extra care out there. I’m learning to deal with my anxiety. It’s not easy.