The unique stressors and challenges that farmers face can have a negative impact on their mental health and well-being.
Extreme weather events, historical fluctuations in international markets, increasingly challenging regulations, trade agreements, and the growing number of livestock epidemics such as the Avian flu threaten Alberta’s agricultural industry and its ability to be a major food source and employer. At the center of this are the farmers and their families, who are struggling to adapt to these challenges.
Farming in Alberta
Research shows that farmers commonly struggle with anxiety and depression, and are at a high risk of suicide. A systematic review of farming and mental health from around the world reported that farmers had significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and stress than the general population.
Alberta is among Canada’s most productive agricultural economies contributing approximately $9.68 billion to the provincial economy in 2020. In fact, Alberta’s agriculture industry is a key driver of economic recovery in a post-COVID world. However, farmers face a range of occupational stressors unlike individuals in any other industry: unpredictable weather, volatile markets, animal-disease outbreaks, depopulation, long work hours, social isolation, intergenerational succession planning, mental health stigma, and limited access to healthcare. Collectively, these stressors threaten the mental health of farmers.
A national study of 1,132 Canadian farmers reported that 35% experienced depression, 57% anxiety, and 45% reported high stress, all values greater than the general population. The survey also found that farmers had lower levels of resiliency than average. Without getting the help they need and developing skills to build resiliency to stress, farmers are at risk of sustaining injuries, self-medication, social withdrawal, and even suicide.
Common farming stressors
For farmers, stress comes from several sources, which might include environmental stressors such as unpredictable weather. Industry stressors such as volatile markets and rapid changes to the global food system are pushing farms from a local family model to a high-tech global model, and depopulation.
Social stressors such as feeling immense pressure to maintain their farm’s multi-generation legacy, intergenerational succession planning, having to step up and volunteer to keep essential services (e.g., volunteer firefighter, coaches) functioning, mental health stigma, and social isolation from living in remote areas.
Personal stories of two Alberta farmers
Here are the personal stories of two Alberta farmers, each of whom faced a mental health crisis and successfully obtained support to their recovery.
Dwayne Kelndorfer and Sean Stanford share their experiences of what it is like to live in rural Alberta when the stakes get high and you don’t know where to turn when you are struggling with mental health issues. Both farmers illustrate the challenges and stress of running a farm business, raising a family, and juggling community responsibilities.
But perhaps more importantly, their stories of stress, mental health breakdown, and recovery give a voice to a vulnerable population who have historically been expected to be stoic and strong. Their experiences echo many of the same themes recently identified in research as issues, including not seeking mental health support until they reach a crisis point, so preventative levels of treatment and resources are needed.
Alberta farmers juggle multiple tasks at once: from managing crops and livestock to running their business to serving as active community volunteers. For years, Dwayne Kelndorfer managed to keep all the balls in the air. He cropped 2,000 acres, ran 250 cows and on top of that was a busy and successful local hockey coach. In 2019, cracks appeared in his marriage and he began to find farming a burden rather than the pleasure it had been.
“In a lot of ways, farmers are gamblers because so much of farming is out of our hands,” Kelndorfer says.
As the feelings deepened, family and friends knew that something was definitely wrong. Kelndorfer took the step of reaching out to his doctor. He eventually entered treatment at Centennial Centre for Mental Health and Brain Injury in Ponoka, Alberta and calls the three-week experience life-changing.
“I know how lucky I was to get a room there,” Kelndorfer says. “I met some incredible people and it really opened my eyes. I learned that all kinds of people have trouble with mental health. I can’t say enough.”
When you’re suddenly removed from your farm for a three-week period, the farm itself is at risk. Cattle need care, and other jobs on the farm just keep piling up. Fortunately for Kelndorfer, family, friends and neighbours rallied around him to keep the farm work under control.
He thinks attitudes about mental health are gradually changing in rural and farming communities. The stigma associated with seeking treatment is slowly lifting. Even if comments or jokes can be heard around town, Kelndorfer believes that coming forward and sharing his story is helpful for him and important for others. “He comes up to me, this big burly rancher, and he says, ‘Because of what you did, I went to the doctor and got some help’.”
Kelndorfer praises the professionals who helped him in his time of need. Beyond clinical resources, he’d like attention paid to the potential of farmer-to-farmer peer groups.
If you ask Sean Stanford when his mental health challenges began, he points to a debilitating anxiety attack that occurred in February 2017. Though, that attack was a long time coming.
“I’d been building up to it before that,” says Stanford, who farms near Magrath, Alberta. “At that time, crops were poor, money was tight and I’d taken on a second job.”
Adding to the stress was the fact that Stanford, a volunteer firefighter in his community, had answered the call to assist with a serious car accident that involved a fatality. “So I had an anxiety attack, or you could call it a mental breakdown,” says Stanford. “I went and met with a community health therapist at the hospital — who helped me sort out the issues that were involved.”
What are the key mental health stressors for Alberta farmers? Stanford has experienced many. “The hardest thing is, your pay cheque depends on Mother Nature,” he says. “You read there’s good crops in Brazil and you wish we had those here, but you just can’t control anything. Farming has changed a lot over the past 30 or 40 years — for one thing, marketing is more complicated — and input costs are at a record high. There’s also pressure to succeed and carry on the family legacy.” Stanford believes that while farming is more challenging than before, some of the reliable old community supports have withered away.
“The days of gathering in the coffee shop to talk are gone, because we have fewer farmers now,” he says. Stanford keeps in touch with some farmer friends in a group chat. That helps, and he sees potential for formally structured farmer peer groups to enable mutual support.
Farmer mental health is not a new issue, but a new generation of farmers want to deal with it as a health issue and not as a failure of character.
The above content is brought to you by the AB Farm Mental Health Network and the University of Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities.
Farm Mental Health Resources
- Emergency: 911
- Health Link: 811
ALBERTA HELP LINES
- Mental Health Helpline: 1-877-303-2642
- Addiction Helpline: 1-866-332-2322
- Family Violence Support: 310-1818
- Distress Line: 780-482-4357
NATIONAL HELP LINES
- Canada Suicide Prevention Services: 1-833-456-4566
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
- First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310