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Understanding the link between farmer mental health and farm success

Farmers are known to be strong, hardworking and resilient. They are tireless leaders who welcome the great responsibility of caring for animals and providing food for Canadians. But, who takes care of farmers?

Some of the latest research funded by our comprehensive research program, led by Dr. Briana Hagen at the University of Guelph, is addressing that very question. Alongside a research team, Dr. Hagen is investigating mental health among Canadian farmers. Building on the results of their work, the researchers have developed mental health literacy training for agricultural and medical communities alike, providing farmer-specific resources to assist with addressing and breaking down mental health stigmas.

Every March, Canadian Agricultural Safety Week raises public awareness for the importance of a safe agriculture industry. To support the campaign, we interviewed Dr. Briana Hagen to understand how farm success and farm safety are linked with farmer mental health.

From feed prices to financial uncertainty, succession planning to climate change, the list of stressors that can weigh on the mind of a farmer are numerous. If a farmer is distracted by stress on the farm or having a difficult time making decisions, the consequences can be serious. For example, farmers often operate heavy equipment and machinery, and the impacts and signs of stress could create a dangerous situation that may lead to on-farm accidents.

“When you take care of your mental well-being and you are functioning at a great level, your farm is going to be inherently safer,” states Dr. Hagen.

“If you’re mentally unwell, you’re physically unwell and it’s going to impact your farm’s success. I think having both of those things functioning at an optimal level is essential for your farm to be successful. If you are neglecting one or the other it’s going to impact your production and it’s going to impact your farm’s success.”

As part of her research, Dr. Hagen conducted interviews and mental health surveys with over 75 farmers of all ages, equally split across genders Canada-wide. Data was gathered on resilience, anxiety, depression and the perceived impact of COVID-19 on farmer’s mental health.

She explains that there are many obstacles standing in the way of farmers who are seeking help. “Having a service to access is probably the biggest [barrier]—a service that farmers feel comfortable accessing.” Once a farmer receives adequate care, it will lead to greater safety and a greater quality of life for farm families.

In the Know is free, mental health literacy training created by Dr. Hagen’s team with farmers, for farmers. The workshop provides industry-specific information and tools to help recognize signs in people who may be struggling. This important resource provides information that farmers, workers and their loved ones need to start a conversation around mental well-being, and to learn where to go to find additional support.

“If every farmer and person who loves the farmer could at least have the tools available to be able to have a conversation, sometimes that’s truly all you need,” says Dr. Hagen.

In the absence of professional training, when asked what loved ones can do to support a farmer, Dr. Hagen says, “listen to your gut—just ask. Letting someone know that you’re a safe space or you’re a person who someone can talk to about their mental health and making sure you’re not contributing to any stigma that might be associated with mental health.”

Up next for Dr. Hagen’s team is identifying gender differences in how farmers experience mental health. “I’m really interested in being able to help women push forward in farming and supporting their mental health. It’s something I’m quite passionate about.”

Egg Farmers of Canada is a proud supporter of Canadian Agricultural Safety Week and practicing #FarmSafetyEveryday. Safe farms are sustainable farms, and supporting Canadian egg farmers in both physical and mental health is vital for the continued strength of Canada’s egg industry.

Dr. Briana Hagen is a Research Scientist at the University of Guelph and the Lead Scientist at the Canadian Centre for Agricultural Wellbeing. Dr. Hagen’s previous research was supported by EFC’s research fund, which champions research and innovation in various fields at universities across Canada. To learn more about our research priorities, visit our Research page.