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Editor’s Column: Take care of your No. 1 resource on the farm — you

By this time of the year, under normal circumstances, I’ll have travelled to a few fall tradeshows, conferences or events. It’s not all business at these meetings, I look forward to catching up with friends and acquaintances and meeting new people in our industry. I always come away from these events feeling recharged, connected with people and enthusiastic about my job and this sector.

This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all in-person trade shows and conferences have been cancelled or moved to a virtual platform. While I have attended a number of excellent virtual conferences this year, it’s a completely different experience.

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Also, at this time, many provinces are moving into increased public health safety measures and guidelines. In Winnipeg, where I live, the provincial response level is critical, which involves extreme limits on gathering sizes, the closure of non-essential workplaces and other restrictions. As I write this editorial on a Sunday afternoon, the streets are uncharacteristically quiet for six weeks before the holidays. And even Winnipeg’s Santa Claus Parade has gone virtual.

All of this has me thinking about mental health and coping with what looks to be a very long and isolated winter. Like farmers, writers and editors are used to isolation and working from home. However, I know already I’m going to miss those social connections, both personal and work related, through the winter.

While you have experience over city dwellers for coping with isolation, the events you usually attend in winter that connect you with other farmers have been cancelled or moved online. Also, COVID restrictions may cause family get-togethers to be scaled back and could restrict annual travel plans and other events that recharge you for the upcoming season.

How can we all increase our mental health resilience and ensure we are rejuvenated for next spring?

It’s not a matter of just doing something else, says Adelle Stewart, who is the executive director of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, which is a one-stop resource for mental health for people in the agriculture sector. There’s power in a handshake or making eye contact with someone you see every year at the trade show booth, and there’s no replacement for human contact — it’s a very real loss, she says. Whether it’s cancelled trade shows or events, smaller family gatherings, travel restrictions or loss of normalcy, honouring those losses is important.

Rather, says Stewart, “feel the feel,” which means feel and communicate the emotions you are experiencing surrounding the loss, such as grief or sadness.

To tell people (or yourself) to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or to do something else with their time doesn’t help the situation.

“Understand it’s normal to be sad about not having these things. We need to find healthy coping strategies because we can’t replace the feeling of that loss,” says Stewart.

There is no simple answer to what healthy coping strategies are because what may be a good strategy for one person may not be for the next. It takes trial and error to figure out what recharges you. And while farmers may be better equipped to handle isolation, statistics show they experience higher stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout than the rest of the public and those in other occupations.

For example, some of the key findings from the 2020 report by Farm Management Canada titled, “Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms,” on stress and the Canadian farming population include:

  • Sixty-two per cent of Canadian farmers are categorized with mid-stress scores and 14 per cent with high stress.
  • Women are more likely to report high stress.
  • Younger farmers show signs of higher stress compared to older farmers and may not cope with stress as well as other age groups.
  • Growing operations are more likely to be stressed about finances compared to mature operations.

The results from another stress and resilience survey conducted on 1,100 producers nationwide from September 2015 to January 2016 by the University of Guelph were also compelling, including the following data:

  • Forty-five per cent of respondents had high stress, 58 per cent had varying levels of anxiety and 35 per cent met the criteria for depression, which is two to four times higher than farmers studied in the United Kingdom and Norway.
  • Of those surveyed, 38 per cent had high levels of emotional exhaustion and 43 per cent had high levels of cynicism.
  • Canadian producers’ resilience is lower among two-thirds of respondents than a comparative U.S. population.

What can you do to look after your mental health now and in the future?

According to Stewart, mental health should be considered a continuum of mental wellness, mental stress and mental illness. A good analogy of this continuum is traffic light colours: green represents mental wellness, yellow is mental stress and red is mental illness.

It’s normal to fluctuate between the green and yellow zones on a day-to-day basis, she says. It’s expected we’ll have a certain amount of stress in our lives, but we should try to live in those green and yellow zones. It’s when individuals don’t have any moments in the green zone — when there is no self-care or there’s a struggle with boundaries, for example — and they start to live in the yellow zone that they need to do some work to get back to a state of wellness.

Also, people living in the yellow zone are at increased risk of moving into the red zone — which could include a diagnosis of depression or anxiety, and often requires external intervention, such as medication or counselling.

What are healthy coping strategies and self-care? It’s highly individual, says Stewart. “It’s when we say, ‘You do you.’” Whatever brings you back into the green zone, or recharges you, is the right answer, but you don’t have to follow social norms for what self-care is, you need to look within yourself for the answer.

For example, traditional meditation may be good for some people, however, walking could be a form of meditation for others. Self-care could be as simple as calling a friend or even chopping wood or clearing brush. It may be trial and error, but if it’s recharging you and it doesn’t feel like a chore, it’s the right thing. The options are endless.

Another piece of advice Stewart offers is to talk more, ask more and listen more about mental health overall. If you want to build your tools for mental health resiliency and you’re not sure where to begin, on December 1, Do More Ag will announce its workshops across Canada, which will be virtual this year. The organization’s website at domore.ag, which is constantly being updated to make it into a robust resource for farmers, also lists provincial crisis resources. Do More Ag is also increasing the capacity of mental health professionals with lived agricultural experience, so farmers don’t have to explain what life on a farm is like to someone who doesn’t understand that environment.

With less travel and events happening this winter, it may be the perfect time to explore the things that recharge you. There are so many things we don’t have control over, says Stewart, what we can control is how we respond on a day-to-day basis with self-care and healthy boundaries.

Because of COVID, there may be no place to go this winter but inward, and that could be a good thing.

Seasons greetings, everyone! I hope you have a happy and healthy holiday season.

Best wishes,

Kari

About the author

Editor

Kari Belanger

Kari Belanger has been a writer and editor since graduating from the University of Calgary with a B.Sc. in Biology and a BA in English Literature in 1996. For more than twenty years, she has worked in many different industries and media, including newspapers and trade publications. For the past decade she has worked exclusively in the agriculture industry, leading a number of publications as editor. Kari has a particular passion for grower-focused publications and a deep respect for Canadian farmers and the work they do. Her keen interest in agronomy and love of writing have led to her long-term commitment to support, strengthen and participate in the industry.

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