Extreme weather events have put a strain on farmers’ mental health. But asking for help is still a barrier for many

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

In the summer of 2021, a heat dome held dangerously high temperatures over the province. Wildfires in inland BC spread flame and smoke across the landscape, destroying the town of Lytton and threatening Smith’s ranch and ranch in the Nicola Valley.

“We actually had to evacuate the cattle from range because they were in danger,” she told CBC Radios. what on earth† “Holy smoke, that fire came through like a tornado.”

And it didn’t stop there. In November, a series of atmospheric rivers flooded the province, flooding farmland that had withstood the sweltering heat just months before.

Julia Smith is a farmer and rancher from the Nicola Valley in BC. She says the extreme weather has had a serious impact on her mental health and that of other farmers and their families. (Submitted by Julia Smith)

Smith says several of her 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 was hitting a wall.

“I started to burn out really, really hard,” she said. “You feel guilty for not losing as much as some people do, but you just want to get back in bed and pull the covers over your head. But you can’t because there are so many horrible things going on.”

Extreme weather is changing the way farmers work

Farmers’ lives and work have always been subject to the unpredictability of the weather. But as the effects of climate change on the weather become more apparent, that unpredictability increases.

For example, farmers who had guaranteed harvest times for generations find that they no longer do so.

Recent studies suggest that farmers are more stressed 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 exacerbated those problems.

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

“The extreme weather that occurs from season to season has made the farming process fundamentally different, more challenging and less predictable,” she said.

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Financing an additional stressor

The stress of adapting financially to these changes, let alone recovering from damage already done, adds an additional level of difficulty for farmers.

Shortly after the November floods, the BC government promised financial aid to farmers who had endured the onslaught of traumatic events.

But Nicole Kooyman, who runs a poultry farm in the Fraser Valley with her husband, says for many farmers that navigating the paperwork to access that support exacerbated the fear.

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

Smith takes care of some of her animals on her Nicola Valley farm. (Tori Ball/Submitted by Julia Smith)

BC’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food said: what on earth it has established a $228 million flood recovery program and regularly processes claims from farmers. In addition, Emergency Management BC says it has added staff and worked evenings and weekends to handle the requests.

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

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

Mental health stigma persists

Hagen says some farmers are hesitant to seek help even though they know they need it. The image of a hard-working, self-sufficient, stoic peasant persists and can be a real barrier to contact.

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

Last November’s floods came after Avtar Dhillon, a farmer in Abbotsford, BC, invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in planting what would have been the county’s first crop of saffron.

In the end, he lost everything, as well as 90 percent of his blueberry crop. Before that, during the heat dome, he’d lost half his blueberry crop.

Avtar Dhillon worked on a saffron plantation on his farm in early November 2021, before floods destroyed his crop. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

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

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

What’s more, for the many farmers who live in small towns, the pervasive stigma of mental illness means that someone may want to hide that they need help or are already getting help for fear that others in the community would find out.

The Khukhrana Blueberry Farm in Arnold, BC, about 9 miles southeast of the Dhillon farm, after a damaging flood destroyed crops in November 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

New programs address farmers’ unique challenges

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

Hagen and Jones-Bitton also developed what is known as the emergency response model for mental health during agricultural crises, a set of guidelines that address the specific challenges farmers face.

“If you don’t have the agricultural context, you can’t 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 runs a dairy farm in Odessa, Ontario, founded the Farmer Wellness Program in Ontario for many of the same reasons.

“I kept hearing from all our farm friends… that if they wanted to talk to someone, it was, ‘Who’s going to understand my lifestyle? How are they going to understand?’” she said.

“That’s why we need therapists to have that” [agriculture] background so that these barriers are removed and they [farmers] can come in and start talking about the problems they have and be able to have that person refer back to them without explaining all the details or details about the farming itself.”

Vanberkel’s wellness program was modeled on a similar program in PEI, and a third was recently launched in Manitoba. But gaps remain in other parts of the country.

“We need to expand all of these farmer welfare programs across Canada…so that all farmers have access to services that are tailored to themselves and their families,” said Vanberkel.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Rachel Sanders.

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