Extreme weather events have put a strain on the mental health of farmers. But asking for help remains an obstacle for many

The past year has not been easy for BC farmers like Julia Smith.

In the summer of 2021, a heat dome trapped dangerously high temperatures over the province. Wildfires in the British Columbia interior spread flames and smoke across the landscape, destroying the town of Lytton and threatening Smith’s farm and ranch in the Nicola Valley.

“We actually had to evacuate the cattle from the range because they were in danger,” she told CBC Radio. What the hell. “Holy smoke, this fire passed like a tornado.”

And that was not the end. In November, a series of atmospheric rivers flooded the province, inundating farmland that had endured scorching heat just months earlier.

Julia Smith is a farmer and rancher from the Nicola Valley in British Columbia. She says the extreme weather events have taken a toll on her mental health and that of other farmers and their families. (Submitted by Julia Smith)

Smith says some of his friends and neighbors lost equipment, animals and acres of land last year. She helped some of them evacuate their homes or move animals to safer ground. By the end of the year, she felt like she had hit a wall.

“I just started to burn out pretty badly,” she said. “You feel guilty because you haven’t lost as much as some people, but you just want to go back to bed and pull the covers over your head. But you can’t, because there are so many terrible things happening.”

Extreme weather conditions are changing the way farmers work

The life and work of farmers have always been subject to the unpredictability of weather conditions. But as the impacts of climate change on weather become more apparent, this unpredictability becomes greater.

Farmers who for generations had guaranteed harvest times, for example, are finding that they no longer do.

Recent studies suggest that farmers have higher levels of stress than the general population. According to a Cambridge Times report, the uncertainty surrounding the ongoing climate crisis – as well as the COVID-19 pandemic – has compounded these issues.

Briana Hagen, a postdoctoral researcher who studies farmers’ mental health at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says farmers she spoke to recently cited the impacts of climate change as a major cause of anxiety and depression. She is currently working to synthesize these conversations into a more in-depth analysis on the subject.

“The extreme weather conditions that occur from season to season have made the farming process fundamentally different, more difficult and less predictable,” she said.

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Finances an additional stressor

The stress of financially adjusting to these changes, not to mention recovering from the damage already done, adds another layer of difficulty for farmers.

Shortly after the November floods, the British Columbia government promised financial assistance was on the way for farmers who had suffered the onslaught of traumatic events.

But Nicole Kooyman, who runs a poultry farm with her husband in the Fraser Valley, says for many farmers, navigating the paperwork to access those supports has compounded the anxiety.

“It’s just added stress to what we’ve already been through, and that’s what’s going to push people over the edge,” she said.

Smith takes care of some of his animals on his farm in Nicola Valley. (Tori Ball/Sent by Julia Smith)

The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Food said What the hell it has set up a $228 million flood recovery program and regularly handles farmer claims. Additionally, Emergency Management BC says it has added staff and is working evenings and weekends to process requests.

The nonprofit AgSafe BC also offers some resources, including free advice to BC farmers, but Smith says farmers don’t always have the capacity to use them.

“It’s bottom of the list when you’re dealing with literally life or death situations,” she said. “You can’t stop and check in with yourself. What if you’re not well? What if you fall apart? … You can’t really look him in the eye because it might overwhelm you.”

Mental health stigma persists

Hagen says some farmers are reluctant to ask for help even though they know they need it. The image of a hard-working, autonomous and stoic farmer persists and can be a real obstacle to openness.

“People don’t want to be seen as weak,” she said.

Last November’s flooding came after Avtar Dhillon, a farmer from Abbotsford, British Columbia, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in planting what would have been the province’s first saffron crop.

He ended up losing everything, along with 90% of his blueberry harvest. Before that, during the heat dome, he had lost half of his blueberry crop.

Avtar Dhillon working in a plot of saffron on his farm in early November 2021, before floods devastated his crop. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

There are many Indo-Canadian blueberry growers like Dhillon in the Fraser Valley who have been impacted by natural disasters, but, he says, very few want to reach out for mental health or emotional support.

“I know a lot of farmers [who are] are already suffering with their mental health,” he said. “Nobody wants to say, ‘I have a problem’, but… we really need help.

Additionally, for the many farmers who live in small towns, the lingering stigma around mental illness means that someone might want to hide the fact that they need or are already receiving help from fear that other members of the community will find out.

The Khukhrana Blueberry Farm in Arnold, British Columbia, about 15 km southeast of Dhillon’s farm, after destructive flooding destroyed crops in November 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

New Programs Address Unique Farmer Challenges

In 2019, Hagen and colleague Andria Jones-Bitton co-created a program called In the Know, which Hagen describes as a farm-specific mental health literacy training program. It aims to provide farmers with mental health information, including recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental health stress, and how to get help.

Hagen and Jones-Bitton also developed what’s called the Mental Health Crisis Response Model for Agricultural Crises, a set of guidelines that address the specific challenges farmers face.

“If you don’t understand the agricultural context, you won’t be able to help effectively,” Hagen said.

Briana Hagen is a postdoctoral researcher studying farmer mental health at the University of Guelph in Ontario. (Submitted by Briana Hagen)

Deborah Vanberkel, a psychotherapist whose family operates a dairy farm in Odessa, Ontario, founded the Farmer Wellness Program in Ontario for many of the same reasons.

“I kept hearing all our farmer friends … say that when they wanted to talk to someone, it was, ‘Who’s going to understand my lifestyle? How will they understand? ‘” she said.

“That’s why we need therapists to have this [agriculture] background, so that these barriers are removed and they [farmers] can come in and start talking about the issues they have and be able to get that person to talk to them without having to explain all the details or the details of the farming itself. »

Vanberkel’s wellness program is modeled after a similar program in Prince Edward Island and a third launched in Manitoba more recently. But gaps remain in other parts of the country.

“We need to expand all of these types of farmer welfare programs across Canada…so that all farmers can access services that are right for them and their families,” Vanberkel said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Rachel Sanders.

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