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Canadian farmers among the most stressed out in the world, partly because of social media attacks

By John Miner, The London Free Press

Fresh pea harvesters work on a field just outside of Melbourne, southwest of London. Canadian farmers are among the most stressed-out in the world, a researcher at the University of Guelph has found. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

Fresh pea harvesters work on a field just outside of Melbourne, southwest of London. Canadian farmers are among the most stressed-out in the world, a researcher at the University of Guelph has found. (MIKE HENSEN, The London Free Press)

Already dealing with volatile markets, heavy debt loads and erratic weather, farmers are now struggling with another pressure - social media attacks.

It's one of the factors that is helping make Canadian farmers some of the most stressed out in the world, said University of Guelph Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton.

Jones-Bitton, a professor in the Department of Population Medicine, is analyzing more than 1,100 responses to an online mental health survey of farmers conducted last fall.

One response from a farmer continues to haunt her. He wrote he felt his entire way of life is under attack.

His comment was illustrative of how some farmers now feel they are under constant public scrutiny with people who don't know much about farming and agriculture, but post strong opinions on social media, Jones-Bitton said.

"If you're working that hard day in and day out, dealing with the stresses that farmers deal with on a regular basis, and at the end of the day are attacked for doing that, it has got to have an impact for your well being," Jones-Bitton said.

The online mental health survey was originally aimed at Ontario livestock producers, but was expanded to a national survey of all farm sectors when it became clear others wanted to participate, Jones-Bitton said.

The results showed that 45 per cent of survey respondents had high stress and another 58 per cent were had varying levels of anxiety. Thirty-five per cent had depression, and 38 per cent reported high levels of emotional exhaustion.

Those numbers were two to four times higher than for farmers studied in the United Kingdom and Norway.

Jones-Bitton said it is clear something needs to be done to help producers.

"It is really quite tragic the number of people I have talked to about farmers who have died by suicide, or whose families have been significantly impacted by mental health with people saying we had no idea there was a problem," Jones-Bitton said.

While data isn't available on Canadian farm suicides, a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control earlier this month found the suicide rate for farmers, forestry and fishers was 90 per 100,000 people. The next highest was 52 per 100,000, construction workers.

Jones-Bitton is working to pull together a team of mental health professionals, farmers and industry representatives to create and deliver a mental health literacy training program for farmers that will train people to recognize mental distress.

She also hopes a model can be developed to help producers when there is a crisis in their industry, such as the avian flu outbreak last year and the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea disease that hit Ontario hog farms.

In those crises, authorities moved quickly to contain the disease and respond to animal welfare issues, but it appeared the mental health of producers was just an afterthought, Jones-Bitton said.

Debra Pretty-Straathof, who has been part of a dairy farm operation and once headed a charity that ran a provincial crisis line for farmers, said farmers need the assistance.

"It is everything that they are dealing with," said Pretty-Straathof.

The crisis line was taken over by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and rolled in with the single line people call for agricultural information.

A spokesperson for the ministry said callers that have emotional issues are directed to qualified professionals in local communities.

jminer@postmedia.com

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