With the typical stressors of this time of year compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health is critical
By Jackie Clark
The upcoming Monday, Jan. 18 is ‘Blue Monday’. This name is given to the third Monday in January, when the post-holiday financial pressure and blues combine with dark and gloomy weather and fading optimism of the new year to create a particularly depressing day. For farmers in Ontario, this year’s Blue Monday will also fall during a second State of Emergency and stay-at-home order to address rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the province.
There has perhaps never been a better time to focus on mental health.
“The pandemic has all of a sudden exponentially increased whatever pre-existing mental health conditions were already there,” Chad Bouma, a clinical therapist from Waterloo region, told Farms.com. “For people who have been able to manage their mental health for the majority of their lives, the pandemic has, for a lot of individuals, been the fire starter in a lot of ways.”
The past ten months have “been a really unpredictable time for the entire population,” he said.
For farmers in particular, there might be increased pressure from caring for ill family members, volatile commodity markets, and trying to continue doing business through processing and manufacturing plant shutdowns.
“There’s just so many complexities for a farmer that I think the general public doesn’t have a good understanding of,” Bouma said. The pandemic has heightened the uncertainty in an already risky and stressful industry.
“It’s hard to quantify what (the impact of the pandemic) looks like as far as increase of stress in one particular area of their life,” he explained. “I think for farmers the blanket effect of (stress) being higher across all aspects of their working and personal lives is probably pretty significant.”
Managing that stress will be key to staying mentally resilient.
“It’s probably unrealistic for us to assume that we’re going to be able to manage all the things at once,” Bouma said. “Farmers (typically) manage all their problems at the same time very well. So there might be a bit of a disillusionment from their perspective.”
For a demographic that is used to juggling multiple stressors and finding innovative solutions, the inability to do so may be extra challenging.
“I think the biggest thing is just the self-awareness piece … becoming self-aware of what we can and can’t control,” he explained. “That doesn’t make us feel better, but it’s a big start to the battle of being able to understand what strategies that are going to help us most effectively.”
Farmers “lives revolve around so much uncertainty, the weather being the best example of that,” he added. “It’s important to recognize that feeling like you don’t have control does not mean that you’re failing.”
Farmers should be aware of some signs to look out for that indicate personal strategies are no longer enough to maintain mental health, and professional help might be advisable.
Early warning signs might include “noticing differences in your physical health. Maybe you’re sleeping a little bit less or you’re feeling more exhausted than you normally would,” Bouma explained. Having a hard time falling asleep even when exhausted and drastic changes in weight are other indicators.
“Do you have loved ones or support people around you that are saying something to you?” he added. Those closest to you might notice behavioural or physical changes even before you do. “If you’re starting to hear that kind of messaging from people who are showing concern or noticing a difference in you, that’s a really good indication.”
Also, “if you’re noticing an increase in behaviours or emotions that you don’t normally experience. Maybe you’re feeling more irritated than you usually are, maybe you’re feeling and acting out of anger a lot more often,” he said. Repetitive, persistent, obsessive thoughts may also be an indication “that it might be time to talk to a professional.”
Increasing access to mental health resources for farmers is an ongoing challenge. Many organizations and industry groups have been doing work to reduce the stigma around seeking professional help, and “putting their money where their mouth is,” Bouma said. It might be worth a call to farm organizations to which you pay membership fees to see if they have any funding or resources available for mental health.
Canadian Mental Health Association has a page dedicated to mental health in agriculture. The Do More Agriculture Foundation and Ontario Federation of Agriculture also list resources and opportunities on their websites.
Some mental health professionals are trying to help lessen the financial burden. Deborah Vanberkel, a registered psychotherapist at Cultivate Counselling Services in Napanee “has lobbied her local organization … to provide funding for farmers that are trying to access therapy,” Bouma said.
“Mental health is an investment in yourself,” he added. “If you’re investing in your equipment, you’re investing in your buildings, you’re investing in your quota, you’re investing in your livestock, all these things. Why not also invest in yourself?”
It’s hard to quantify the return on that investment, but mental health is key to remaining resilient and able to take care of your business through difficult times.
One effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health service provision might actually help farmers access therapy.
“We’ve quickly adjusted and normalized virtual therapy or teletherapy,” Bouma explained. “All agencies are offering that virtual option now” which removes the barrier of distance and travel time to go to therapy.
Some farmers might not care if their therapist has an agricultural background, however Bouma believes that more mental health professionals should have an understanding of farming.
“To be understood … is really important and it helps break down those stigmas,” he said.
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