This morning, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we are studying the mental health challenges that Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers face
With us this morning, by video conference, we have from the University of Regina, Dr. Nicholas Carleton, professor, department of psychology; and Dr. Amber Fletcher, associate professor, department of sociology. From the Canadian Farmers with Disabilities Registry, we have Bob Guest, chairman, and Jonas Johnson.
Thank you all for being here.
We'll start with an opening statement, up to seven minutes. We're kind of pressed for time, so I'll certainly let you know.
Our goal is to help families and people return to the farm or ranch after suffering a disability through injury or illness. We provide support to the disabled person as well as the family. The mental health of the family is a big part of the challenge. That is why it is so important to deal with the entire family unit. The impacts on the family farm struggling with a disability are far-reaching. The mental health impact can go far beyond the family to the local community.
In one case, a farmer lost his arm. The farmer was doing quite well with the incident, but the son who had turned the auger on was greatly suffering with mental health issues. The entire family was torn apart by the incident, and the same burden is created when a farm disability or illness happens. The individual family or community are also impacted.
Without a disability, the daily challenges of the mental health burden of managing a farm can be great. Add a disability to the challenges, and it becomes a hundredfold more. The challenges can be so great that we recently felt the need to add a suicide hotline to our website.
We're the only national organization that works with farmers and ranchers with a disability. Our organization is made up of disabled volunteers committed to helping other disabled farmers. Our volunteers experienced their own challenges, yet they take time to work tirelessly with others.
A family can be torn apart by the feelings of guilt and hopelessness. I cannot tell you how good it feels, and the changes that we can make with the family when we speak to them one-on-one to give them hope that they can carry on with their farm life.
For several years, the organization has not received any funding, and this has taken a great toll on our ability to help others. Many people in need do not receive the help, because we do not have the funding to reach everyone. We are now in the process of accessing new funding to help rebuild the organization and increase our reach, to help more people.
I feel it is a great loss to the agricultural community and productive families if our members are unable to do the work they love. Our goal is to help our members remain at work with the farm life that they love, and keep them productive in the agricultural community.
Basically, that's what we do. I won't take up any more of your seven minutes, and open it up to any questions.
Good morning, honourable members. Thank you very much for your time today.
I'm a registered clinical psychologist in Saskatchewan, and a professor of psychology and a researcher at the University of Regina. I have experience in mental health, particularly acute and chronic stress including post-traumatic stress disorder, and I will be speaking to some of the published literature on farmer mental health this morning.
According to Statistics Canada, at any given time approximately 10% of the Canadian population meets criteria for one or more mental health disorders. In 2005, a peer-reviewed literature review article evidenced farmers as experiencing one of the highest industry rates of suicide, but also indicated that they may not have been experiencing higher rates of mental health illnesses.
More recently in 2018, a systematic literature review and meta-analysis by Klingelschmidt and colleagues was published in a peer-reviewed journal. The results indicated a pooled effect size of 1.48 times excess suicide risk among agricultural, forestry and fishery workers. Those results differ from a 1999 epidemiological study of Canadian farmers that indicated, after adjusting for age differences, that provincial suicide rates among farm operators were generally lower than or equivalent to those observed in the comparison populations of Canadian males.
Part of the difference may be due to climate change as indicated by a recent peer-reviewed article that evidenced that climate change and drought can negatively impact Canadian mental health, particularly for farmers impacted by drought. Over the last two decades, the climate changes, whether anthropogenic or not, as well as highly dynamic economic conditions and the progressive shifts towards mega-farms, have all produced substantial levels of uncertainty associated with critical components of farmer livelihood.
As indicated by two 2016 peer-reviewed review articles, higher levels of uncertainty are inherently perceived as threatening, particularly when associated with perceptions of realizable risk. Moreover, difficulties with uncertainty have been robustly associated with several mental health disorders.
There is also evidence from a 2013 peer-reviewed article that male farmers may be especially reluctant to access mental health care for a variety of reasons including stigma and limited accessibility of evidence-based care. Part of that stigma has been evidenced in a 2014 peer-reviewed article as being associated with potentially toxic notions of masculinity that may interact with perceptions that male farmers are primarily responsible for the success or failure of the farm despite having relatively limited agency over things like weather.
In addition, farmers are often relatively isolated, meaning that opportunities for social support may be limited, which can further increase mental health risks. The complements of challenges facing farmers including perceptions of masculinity, unstable work, uncertainty, diverse barriers to accessing care and limited social support networks are all likely to increase the probability for mental health disorders and death by suicide.
The perceived daily stressors also sometimes referred to as daily hassles, when coupled with a significant negative impact event like a flood or drought, may also exacerbate the potential mental health risks.
Accordingly, tailored mental health services and supports may be very beneficial for supporting farmer and farm family mental health.
Good morning, honourable members. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you on this very important topic.
I grew up on a Saskatchewan grain farm that my family still continues to operate. As a professor and researcher, I conduct intensive qualitative research with farmers and ranchers across the prairie region. My research focuses on social vulnerability to climate disasters like flooding and drought. Following supported methods of vulnerability assessment, my research employs an inductive approach that allows farmers to identify the issues most pertinent and top of mind for them. I would like to use my time today to share the key results of several major research projects I've completed over the past six years.
Uncertainty is, by far, the most commonly mentioned stressor for farmers. Unlike the relative stability of waged employment, farmers live and work with the constant threat of lost livelihood. Economic and environmental stressors are the most frequently mentioned causes of this uncertainty. Key economic stressors include the cost of inputs, high variability in commodity prices, and a general “get big or get out” environment in contemporary agriculture. Over the past few years, headlines have extolled an upward trend in farm income. However, my own analysis of census of agriculture data on net farm income from 1981 to 2017 shows that since 2006, farm incomes have demonstrated dramatic variability that is unprecedented in the same period. While overall trends may have crept upward slightly, variability, and the associated uncertainty, is at an all-time high.
Farmers speak overwhelmingly about the rising cost of inputs. Existing political-economic analysis, including my own research, has noted the growing profit imperative as large multinational corporations increase their presence across the food chain, from seed development to marketing and export. Both basic economic analysis and common sense suggest that a rising profit imperative for corporations leaves less room for farmers to profit.
In this context of economic uncertainty, farmers have adapted by seeking economies of scale. Although often heralded as a sign of farm success, Statistics Canada data from 2011 and 2017 show that the farm size explosion of the past two decades is actually premised on higher and higher levels of farm debt. My interview participants frequently discuss how farm debt increases their vulnerability, particularly when the year's crop is lost to a climate disaster.
Although new seed varieties promise resilience to climatic factors, these varieties are expensive. In the case of some disasters, a more expensive seed simply means a more expensive crop lost. In the context of future climate change, it would be a mistake to rely only on agricultural technology or insurance for climate adaptation. There is a pressing need for socio-economic interventions to enhance climate resilience.
Support for farmer-centred mental health initiatives is crucial. However, it is my opinion as a researcher that farmer mental health challenges can be best addressed at the root cause—by taking steps to increase market certainty, stabilize farm incomes and control input costs. Such steps are based on the understanding, which was quite common in past eras but is now seemingly forgotten, that farming is not an industry like any other. Market interventions are necessary for the continued success of the sector and for the well-being of the Canadians who carry out this very important work.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
The testimony this morning has been interesting.
First of all, I'll talk to Mr. Guest and Mr. Johnson.
I am a farmer, and many of my neighbours are farming in wheelchairs. I know that one of our neighbours had lost his hand in the Korean War. However, as my dad always used to say, he could do more with one hand than most men could do with two, because it had to do with determination and the things that are so important to people.
We listened to some of the experts, from the universities and so on, and there were a number of things mentioned that were negatives: the climate change, the shift towards mega-farms, the toxic notion of masculinity, and the large multinationals as being problems.
To those of us who farm, there is a certain amount of reality to the situations that occur, but what we've heard in testimony over the last few weeks is that the connotation that comes from the stressors that were just mentioned is as much of a problem to the farmers as anything else. When people are saying it's the big mega-farms that are causing the problems, or when they say it is the new technology that people have to deal with, these are certainly not factors on the farm. It might look that way from 10,000 feet, but the most expensive seed is the first seed that is bought, because that is the one that is going to give you the most potential.
Those are things we've looked at, issues and concerns that many of us have. I just want to put that on the table because farmers get attacked in so many different ways. We've heard the social media attacks, the PETA groups, and we have the others who don't wish to have hormone injections into beef because they say it's going to be so disastrous, when there is more estrogen in the bun than there is in the meat. These are the kinds of things that farmers have to sort through, and they realize that there are issues.
As far as costs are concerned, when we speak about climate change, I have a chart as to how much it is going to cost the average farm just for the carbon tax alone. In Alberta, where we have a carbon tax, on my farm alone it's nearly $20,000.
When we look at it from that 10,000 feet and say this would be a good idea and that would be a good idea, it doesn't hit the realities on the farm.
Mr. Guest, now that I've taken up half of my time, I'll ask, how is your organization trying to deal with both the mental and physical aspects of the disabilities?
Our biggest issue is that when we hear about the accident, we try to bring in a matching family to help that person. We'll get a visitation into the hospital as quickly as we can with somebody with a similar disability so that they can see that life does go on after the accident. Then what we'll do is try to match his family with another family with a similar problem, so that they can go to the farm and help them with their farm issue.
We've found that one of the biggest mental problems a lot of times...and I'll use the example of the gentleman we talked about who had his arm in the auger. His son had actually turned the auger on. The father was doing extremely well. He just wanted to get back to work. He wanted to know when we could put a prosthesis on and he could get back to the farm. However, for the son and the mother, and the blame that was going through the family as to what they could have done and what they should have done, on the mental side of it, when they could go and talk to somebody who had been through it, it made a world of difference.
The family we sent in said there was no better feeling than seeing them get back and be a productive part of the farm, and be a unit again, where it wasn't getting torn apart.
That's basically where we go. There's nobody else who does that, because you, or whoever, can't go in with the same perspective as the family with the disability does, those who have lived through it. That's why it's so important that we don't lose our organization.
As somebody who doesn't normally sit on this committee, I thank you for the opportunity to be here. I'd like to thank all our guests, as well, for being here.
Before I start, I want to recognize Mr. Guest and the good work that they do. Thank you very much. I used to sit on CFA, and when I did, I was involved quite heavily with CASA, so I recognize the importance of that to the agricultural community.
I'd also like to touch quickly on what Mr. Dreeshen said, and I agree with what he was saying around the stressors of being an agricultural producer and not necessarily having the opportunity to feel as though the things that are the most important to you, your family and the people who work for you in your organization, are what's represented in the media. You feel as though you're somehow the villain in a plot as opposed to the good guy who's trying to do the right thing for Canadian families who don't necessarily recognize or appreciate the work that you do on their behalf.
I was an agricultural producer for most of my life. I grew up on a seed potato farm and later I farmed on a large scale in seed, table and processed potatoes as well as eggs. I sold out in 2011, and then I sold my egg farm in 2017.
I want to identify a few things before I go to questions. Hopefully I'll have time to go to questions. As a farmer who had farmed starting at a young age and raised a family on the farm and who has exited the farm, I would like to identify a few things that I feel.
The conditions I dealt with as a farmer before I exited agriculture were financial uncertainty, weather, market variability, and guilt about my work-life balance with my family and my children. The work-life balance piece was never brought up by my wife or my kids, but it was something that I always felt I was negligent in, but it was really beyond my control. It was beyond my ability to change that circumstance given the financial constraints of the operation that I was running and the demands that it put on my time and on the people who were helping me to run that operation.
When I decided to sell out in 2011, or the winter of 2010, it was because I had some health concerns. I can't take the dust anymore. I can't be around dust, so it was more of a forced exit than it was an exit that I had complete control over. I decided to sell out through a large auction company, which was an amazing experience. It was a good way to do it, and it was a way that left me a clean break to start over at the age of 29.
Post-exit, I had a lot of different feelings. You would think that you would feel as though you had exited the industry, that it was a new start and it was cut and dried and simple, but it's not. I was left feeling as though the rest of the world was passing me by and had moved on.
I remember the day after the auction, once all the equipment was gone, just standing there in the middle of the yard wondering if I had made the right decision, if it was the right decision for my family, if it was the right decision for me, and what I was going to do next. It led me to a period in my life that was very difficult, in which I struggled with severe depression, which put additional stresses on my marriage and on my relationships with my children, my family, and the people who had worked for me originally. It took me probably two years of hard work, counselling and working to try to overcome that circumstance, to get through it.
Even today, there are certain times of the year when I really struggle with whether or not I made the right decision, and it's been a substantial amount of time since that happened. I truly believe that I'll always feel that way. It was the career that I wanted for my entire life, so to have that taken away or to feel as though I needed to have that taken away.... Having had conversations with other farmers who were in similar situations or who had to exit for financial reasons or for health reasons related to stress, I think it's one of the biggest challenges that's going to plague the industry going forward.
I don't think it's based on size. It's not based on size. I see farmers who have small, family-owned farms that milk 25 cows, who deal with the mental challenges around agriculture. I see large operators who farm 10,000 to 15,000 acres who suffer with the exact same challenges. I don't think it's something that's unique or relevant to the size and scope of an agricultural producer's operation. It's something that's related to the specific task that they're doing. I would say more than anything it's the desire on behalf of the farmer to feel like his contributions to society in this country are, one, acknowledged, and, two, found to be important and substantive to everyday Canadians.
I don't know very many farmers who wake up and say I don't really care whether Canadians think I'm a good person or not. Every farmer I know wants to do the right thing for the environment. They want to do the right thing for the people who they produce their food for, and then they're very proud of what they do. A lot of times—Mr. Dreeshen is right—it's a very closed-off group. Because you spend so much time working in your operation alone and not around other people, you really struggle to find those supports and controls, especially when you're in the situation at that time.
So quickly, if there's any time left at all, I would invite you—
You've identified funding as a key component here. That's good to get into the record.
One of our previous witnesses, actually a couple, came from an organization in Quebec and one of the things they did was that they had mental health workers who understood the nature of the farm, understood the culture of it. They would go to farms on unscheduled visits because we've heard about the culture of stoicism amongst the farming community. They're not often the ones who will go out and seek help for themselves.
They would pay unscheduled visits to farms, understanding the nature of the place, just to check in on a person. How do you feel about that kind of approach?
Dr. Carleton and Dr. Fletcher, it was very interesting to hear about your research on climate change and its negative impacts on mental health. I think we all know that farmers over the ages have certainly had to deal with adverse weather events. That's just something they do. However, we're now seeing the evidence that these adverse weather events are being compounded. They're happening much more frequently, and if we believe the 6,000-plus scientists who have contributed to the recent IPCC report, we don't have very much time left.
It seems to me that it's very unfortunate that here in this place we're stuck over an argument about whether or not to apply a carbon tax. However, we're missing the big picture that climate change is happening and so far our response to it is completely ineffective. It's going to require some drastic change.
Acknowledging that these increases in adverse weather events are going to be the norm unless we drastically change our course of action, and knowing that this will negatively impact the mental health of farmers, has your research—or any of the research that you're familiar with—identified any possible mitigation strategies that we can employ? We're looking for recommendations, knowing that this may be the new norm in the future.
What strategies can we employ to help farmers deal with these increasing adverse weather effects and the effects that they are going to have on their farms?
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I don't know whether it was Mr. Carleton or Ms. Fletcher who said that farming was a unique profession, as people were fairly isolated and there was little networking in the workplace. With social network being very limited, it may be more difficult to seek help. The time farmers have to seek that help or attend consultations is very limited. That clearly increases stress and all factors related to anxiety, for the many reasons you listed.
A few weeks ago, experts came before us to talk about proactivity and support workers. Those are social workers or psychologists who visit farms sporadically. Their organization is located in Quebec. I don't whether you have heard about this initiative or whether you have something similar at home, in Saskatchewan.
Could you tell me whether you think that initiative could spread throughout Canada? I would like to know what you think about it.
Thank you for the question.
One initiative that I think is particularly important is the funding to support farmer-led initiatives for mental health. For example, here in Saskatchewan, we have some groups of farmers who are actively pushing for farmer-to-farmer, peer-to-peer mental health supports.
One of the challenges we see is that often the people providing the support for farmer mental health are not actually farmers. Here in Saskatchewan, for example, the farm stress line is now operated by crisis intervention workers who are usually not farmers. I think it can be very daunting and very difficult for farmers to speak with folks who they see as having little connection or little understanding of agriculture.
In addition to that, as I've mentioned before in my statements, I do think it's very important to address the root causes of the mental health crises, that being, of course, the economic uncertainty, the financial uncertainty that farmers face.
I appreciate the witnesses for coming.
Mr. Guest, thank you for being here and putting a real person and a face on this issue.
A number of years ago, two young students were working at a local business. They produced concrete form products. At the end of the day, one of them had to go in and clean out the turner. One of the safety switches malfunctioned. His best friend went by and touched a switch that should not have activated the drum, but it did. To your comments about the effects, that young person who accidentally touched the switch—which of course should not have activated the drum—suffered severe mental injuries even though he was not at fault.
That becomes part of what you're talking about. I think it was so important. These are mostly around family events, when there is an accident. I appreciate very much that you talked about walking alongside and giving people hope, because this is really what this is all about from my perspective. Thank you for that.
As my colleague has said, we need to look at how we can help those. These are on-the-ground organizations that will mean as much or more to that family than many of the higher integrated organizations might. It's like the person from Quebec, where they drop in. They're on the road. We'll be talking later about the mobile units from Saskatchewan.
Thank you. I really don't have a question, other than to say that.
T.J., thank you. For those of us who are in the business, to have one of my colleagues come forward....
We've been through it. I remember back to the 1980s. Dr. Fletcher, in some ways there hasn't been much change. There really hasn't. I go back to the 1980s. The change was 23% interest, not 4% or 6% interest, but the multiplier is still the same.
One of the issues in my area is that there's no recognition, other than often condemnation of what we do. This may be a bit like T.J. I'm sorry; I may not have a lot of questions, but maybe we can learn some things. We have one of the most advanced industries in this world, folks. When we get condemned by activists.... I have mink breeders. Their issue is not the market. Their issue is not the weather. Their issue is the people out on the road who are cutting the fence to get into their farms to let the animals loose, that they will die. The breeders' concern in that case is the security and safety of their family.
There is the issue around research. On the weekend I took a young intern to one of my farms that has beef and greenhouses. He's now taken that kernel of corn that used to grow and feed beef cattle to an ethanol plant. He takes the distillers back home to feed to his beef cattle. He's now taken the CO2, which by the way is not a pollutant. It's a fertilizer. That narrative has now asserted a change in terms of climate change about pollutants instead of CO2. He takes that heat and the CO2, and is now growing tomatoes. That is the type of research.
The condemnation is of what we are doing. People say, “We don't like what you're doing to these animals. You're not transporting them properly.” I meet with pork producers. When their trucks are on the road, they're being harassed by individuals at lights. Those are where the real stressors come from, not the everyday work.
I was in dairy. We have cash crop, and right now we're dealing with vomitoxin in corn. We're dealing with wet weather. Those are issues we can deal with, though. It's the external issues on top that discredit everything we're doing.
You know, in terms of the environment, the condemnation to us here is that we're not doing anything. The issue is that we're one of the best countries in the world. The agriculture industry is one of the best carbon sinks in the world. What we need to be focusing on is helping to train those other countries that are the major polluters, and quit condemning our manufacturers and our farmers for what they think we're not doing.
Ms. Fletcher, I would just ask you this. Would you agree that the technology and research and genetics that we now have continue to be of benefit to not only our industry but to the environment in which we live?
Thank you so much for all your presentations this morning.
To the Canadian Farmers with Disabilities Registry, you mention on your website assistance on suicide prevention. I've been on your website and I've seen that you have connections to Farm Credit Canada. They were a previous witness on this study.
Mr. Guest, you mentioned that you used to have funding. It looks like that funding used to come through Growing Forward 2, possibly for project funding. On your website, at least, there was an indication of Growing Forward 2 funding. It seems as though funding is one of the big question marks. There is a safety association on Pembina Highway in Winnipeg—I know Winnipeg well, so I know where you're located—but it's not part of the government. You're relying on some funding from the government to keep it going.
Could one of you talk about the challenge of the organization in terms of funding?
Dr. Fletcher, something very interesting to me was the social intervention of climate change. We see the political argument that carbon taxes are bad. They're increasing the prices on the farm, but at the same time the problem of climate change is providing a stressor as well.
How do we look at those two stressors?
On one hand, we have to try to eliminate the effects of climate change, and we need to do that economically to get into the right effectiveness. On the other hand, the economics hurt the farmer. Could you make a comment on that, please, in the 20 seconds we have left?
Thank you, Mr. Longfield.
This, unfortunately, is all the time we have.
I want to thank Dr. Carleton, Dr. Fletcher, and also Mr. Guest and Mr. Johnson.
As you saw, on this committee there are quite a few farmers. I'm a farmer myself, and there are other farmers here. We really understand, and it's also a chance for us to talk about our personal experience. I think it's great that we have such diversity.
I forgot to mention Mr. Baylis. You're so quiet. Welcome to our committee.
We're going to break and change the panel. We'll be back in two minutes.
We'll get going with our second hour on our study of mental health as it applies to farmers and ranchers.
With us today by video conference, we have, from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Dr. Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist and director, Badge for Life Canada. From Mobile Crisis Services, we have John McFadyen, executive director.
Welcome. We'll start with a seven-minute opening statement.
Do you want to start, Mr. McFadyen?
In 1989, the Ministry of Agriculture recognized the range of issues faced by farmers and rural families and the potential benefits to farmers and rural families in Saskatchewan of having a specific phone line to assist. The farm stress line was initiated and funded, resourced, by the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture and the agriculture knowledge centre in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Crisis counselling and referrals were provided.
In 2012, the farm stress line was contracted to Mobile Crisis Services and it provides a 1-800 number to farmers and rural families to access confidential telephone crisis counselling support, information and referral. This change provided 24-7 access along with proven expertise in crisis counselling services.
Crisis intervention is immediate and short-term psychological care aimed at assisting individuals in crisis situations and restoring equilibrium back to their lives. The farm stress line can address any self-identified crisis, whether it's a mental health issue, stress, depression, suicide ideation, family conflict, teen-parent conflicts, seniors' deteriorating health, abuse and neglect, relationships, parenting, addictions, gambling, alcohol, drugs and substance abuse, or even custody, child abuse, neglect and youth in crisis, whether it's bullying relationships with peers and parents or financial issues.
What can individuals expect when they call the farm stress line? The farm stress line can help the individual or those concerned about an individual. The hardest part is the decision to pick up the phone and make the call. Crisis workers will listen to what's worrying you, they will help you tell your story, they will help you prioritize the issues you have identified, and they will get you to provide information about your current situation, your past situations, your current and past supports and whether those are family, friends or professionals. They will assess what has worked well and what hasn't. They will help you determine what needs to be addressed and what can wait. They will help you to determine what you have control over and those issues you have no control over. They will help you problem-solve and identify alternatives.
Since June of 2017, mental health and farm stress have become a conversation that is more acceptable in the Saskatchewan farming community. Unfortunately, this was sparked by the suicide of a farmer in June of 2017. Conversations were initiated by Do More Agriculture Foundation, Bridges Health and the farm stress line. Organizers of agriculture forums in Regina, Saskatoon, Weyburn and Yorkton provide panels of experts to talk about mental health and farming. Organizations that worked with and for farmers, like Farm Credit Canada and APAS, also promoted this conversation.
At a Christmas gathering, my brother-in-law told me that he did not realize how much stress he had been under until he retired from farming.
We all have mental health, and our mental health is good when our thoughts are positive, our relationships are good and our emotions are stable. Our mental health is not good when our thoughts are negative, our emotions are unpredictable and our relationships are stressed. Stress impairs our ability to think and problem-solve and distracts us while we manage our day-to-day tasks. Stress can come from equipment breakdowns, weather, crop decisions, finances, physical health issues or issues with farm support workers.
Stress can also come from domestic issues with a spouse, children, extended family, illness in the family, accidents or a traumatic event like the death of a family member. When farmers are distracted and stress levels get too high, farmers are more likely to make poor farming decisions and be involved in farm accidents.
Over the past four years, since Mobile Crisis Services took over, there have been approximately 220 to 320 calls per year coming in on the farm stress line. Calls range from individuals calling in about issues that they're having with succession planning and the stress of making those decisions, and how that's impacting them with regard to sleeping patterns. A wife called in concerned about her husband who was unresponsive, worried about dementia. An unknown female called in stating that earlier she was not feeling safe and intended to take all her sleeping pills. She was currently under pressure due to decisions around the rental of a section of land, and relationship issues with a current and ex-partner. An unknown male called in who was struggling with anxiety and depression on an ongoing basis, which was made more difficult with the pressures around what to do with his will and succession planning. There was a grandmother who had her grandchildren visiting for the weekend, and a child was scared to return back home.
Here are some challenges and recommendations. Some of the challenges are the lack of awareness of the services available, the stigma of asking for help, providing access to services for those in rural Saskatchewan—
Dear members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to discuss mental health supports for our Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers.
I am Dr. Katy Kamkar. I'm a clinical psychologist at the work, stress and mental health program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, CAMH. I am an assistant professor within the department of psychiatry, University of Toronto, and director of Badge of Life Canada, which is a peer-led charitable organization for police and corrections first responders across Canada who are dealing with psychological injuries suffered in the line of duty.
I'm also a member of the Collaborative Centre for Justice and Safety advisory council, and I serve on the Canadian Institute for Public Safety Research and Treatment national policing research committee. I'm also part of the scientific advisory committee with Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia. I'm a founding and credentialed member of the Canadian Association of Cognitive and Behavioural Therapies, and I'm on the editorial board of the Journal of Community Safety and Well-Being.
I provide evidence-based psychological assessment and treatment for mood and anxiety disorders, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorders, occupational stress injuries in first responders and psychological distress in the workplace.
Providing mental health support, resources and treatment to our Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers is of utmost importance. Building awareness to have a better understanding of the various stressors they experience can also help build further resources related to their needs.
Our Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers experience a range of stressors related to their occupations that in turn affect their personal lives. They often face situations or circumstances with heightened uncertainty and limited control, in turn leading them to feel helpless and powerless, increasing their feelings of anxiety. For example, poor weather conditions can significantly impact the quality of their work and the financial outcomes.
Other stressors over which they have limited control but that can significantly impact their mental health and their work include natural disasters, or any changes, for example, related to government policies or regulations. Public dissatisfaction or negative media coverage around their work can as well significantly increase stress levels and feelings of demoralization. High work demands, working long hours often around the clock, can lead to mental, emotional, psychological and physical exhaustion.
Most importantly, the hard work might lead to negative outcomes and limited financial gains given that many factors are not within their control, increasing the risk for psychological health concerns such as feeling demoralized, hopeless, helpless, stressed, anxious and depressed, along with other psychological symptoms such as sleep disturbance, changes in appetite or energy level, feelings of worthlessness, and reduced self-esteem and self-confidence.
Stresses and pressures related to finances and family are common as a result of the factors I just noted, in turn increasing the risk for psychological health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Their work also entails working in isolation, limited contact with people and limited social support. Over time this can translate into feeling lonely, suffering in isolation and feeling withdrawn, making it more difficult to ask for help if in need.
There is also a culture that embraces high stigma around mental illness, and there is a perception of weakness and dependence if someone suffers or talks about any mental health concerns. Concurrent physical and mental health issues are also likely given the pain and physical health concerns that could result from the physical demands of the occupation, thus further exacerbating any psychological concerns.
Support and interventions aimed towards building awareness of mental health issues facing Canadian farmers are needed. These include gaining access to mental health education, stigma reduction, mental health promotion and building resiliency skills.
Having access to resources, support and psychotherapy are necessary. Given long distances, difficulty gaining access to therapy in rural areas and difficulty leaving their work, therapy—either in person or through other formats such as phone or Internet-based therapy—would need to be considered. Group therapy and a community of support should also be considered. There is a need for further research to gain a better understanding of the unique stressors faced by farmers, and for developing more targeted interventions based on research.
Dear members of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food, I would like to thank you again for the opportunity to discuss mental health supports for our Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers. Providing mental health support, resources and interventions to our Canadian farmers, ranchers and producers, again, are of utmost importance.
Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I thank our two witnesses.
I also want to thank Mr. Harvey, Mr. Dresshen, and Mr. Shipley for their testimony during the first hour. It is good to have people around this table who have been farmers themselves and can tell their stories. It was a really interesting hour.
Since the beginning of this study, much has been said about farmers in crisis, at the end of their rope. That is what we have talked about the most. However, not much has been said about prevention.
Ms. Kamkar, you work with different types of clients. Are all farmers likely to face mental health problems, or are only certain types of farmers at risk? That is something we have not really discussed so far.
Could you share your thoughts on that?
Thank you very much for this important question.
Of course there are daily stressors that we need to expect. It becomes problematic when some stressors become chronic. We know that chronic stressors increase the risk for psychological and physical health concerns, so yes, there are certain chronic stressors specifically unique to our Canadian farmers—definitely, working in isolation. We know there is also this lack of control and tremendous uncertainty that they all go through. We know, as human beings dealing with uncertainty, we all have difficulties. We all know what that is, but the level of uncertainty that they have to deal with is almost chronic.
The limited control that they have over their occupation.... It could be working very hard. A lot of work demands working around the clock, as we know, but it's not knowing what's going to happen. I can put my hard work, my heart and soul into it but really not knowing what the outcome will be.... We know that if the outcome is not positive, it will lead to financial impact, therefore affecting family as well.
That's a good question.
I think the safest response is that we do not know. That's why this conversation becomes very important, because we simply do not know.
It also has to do with the heightened stigma about seeking help—keeping everything to oneself and this perception of being weak if we come forward. There are limited interventions, of course, with the isolation and everything going on, and the stigma and self-stigma make it even more difficult to come forward. It could be that by the time someone is reaching out for help they are at the burnout level.
If we encourage early intervention, awareness and prevention, it can very much further our understanding and provide some respectful response to that important question.
Thank your, Mr. Chair. That's very nice. So I will talk about the motion if that's okay with you. It won't take very long, since witnesses are in attendance and we have to hear from them. I think this is extremely important.
A few moments ago, I talked to Ms. Kamkar about prevention and about a specific moment when a crisis may arise. In fact, since the beginning of the study, we have mostly been talking about crises. We have had an opportunity to hear testimony from people with a great deal of experience in the farming sector. We have heard from Mr. Harvey, Mr. Shipley and Mr. Dreeshen. In addition, the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food himself is a producer, a farmer. So he is also knowledgeable in that field. Since he is a minister, he has a unique role to play in defending producers and farmers.
Taking into account discussions that have taken place since the beginning of the study, it seems clear that we should prioritize farmers' and producers' mental health problems. I say that it seems clear because, when we asked officials what their mental health mandate was specifically, we saw that no such mandate existed. I don't know whether you remember, but that was at the very beginning of the meeting. If we recall the testimony, we know that there is no mental health mandate as such. That role does not exist. I remember very well that the deputy minister told us they were taking action because they wanted to help producers and farmers, but that was not written anywhere. It is not in the minister's mandate letter or in the department's letters of credence. The department has no actual obligation to consider farmers' mental health.
We just heard that there are many things we don't know about. I think that the role of the department of agriculture is to pursue this matter. In my opinion, no one is in a better position than the minister of agriculture to explain to us how he sees things, and especially what he thinks about this issue. Since I have been hearing testimony during this study, I have noticed that the situation is much more problematic than someone like me, a non-farmer, may have initially thought.
That is why, Mr. Chair, I will ask my colleagues for something very simple—to add the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food to the list of witnesses.
We have an opportunity, colleagues. We've had some great testimony. We're actually coming to the end of the study, I think. I was just trying to find out the number of meetings. I think we're coming towards the end of it, unless we take an extension on it. Clearly there's been some movement of understanding of what we need to do on the peer-to-peer. How do we help those who are on the ground?
We've done a lot of research. There's an incredible amount of research. Back in the 1980s, some of us experienced that. The issues are the same. The one difference.... We haven't had a lot of discussion, but it will come up at another meeting. We did have some abuse of substance back in the 1980s, but not drugs—not out in the rural areas, anyway.
We have an opportunity with a minister who, I think all of us know very well, comes with that background. Not only as a leader around the cabinet table, but also as a leader in his community. Because he comes with that background, I think he could tell you that he also walked through, in the 1980s, changes in culture and life around the stresses that came at that time. I don't know where this will go in terms of the government, but for those of us, the farmers who we represent and the people in the agriculture industry.... It's much bigger than just the farmers. We have an opportunity to have him come before us and talk to us about the significance of this.
Where might he want to take us in terms of our understanding with this significant study? I have to be honest with you, at the start of it we knew that this was an issue. I don't think I had a grasp, quite honestly—even though I walked through some of this—that this was as big as it is across our country. It isn't just among the grain farmers. It's among all producers, whether you're in the supply-managed or not.
I would encourage the folks on the other side, with the government. This is about what can we find out and how we can best help those in our industry. It's also the ones who are selling us the inputs. It's also the ones who are selling to us and working for us. If we're in a situation were there are continual stresses, we need to get some peer-to-peer. Quite honestly, folks, my pressure is going to be, how do we get people in the industry who have actually walked it? How do we get those people to come alongside? We had that with Mr. Guest this morning. I think that was laid out strongly.
I won't take any more time. I know this study is coming to an end. I think if we don't have that opportunity to bring in a minister who is responsible for our industry and who lives it, has worked it, and who—I can almost be certain, although I have not talked to him about it so I don't want to be presumptuous—went through it in the 1980s.... I'll leave it at that, Mr. Chair.
Thank you very much.
We provide services to a variety of very specific populations, very much as you mentioned—first responders and police—but also to our youth and our elderly. We have a variety of programs dealing with trauma, mood and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and as I mentioned, addictions, so there are a variety of services.
When it comes to our Canadian farmers, of course every population is very unique, and that's very important. It doesn't mean that different populations do not have similar stressors and concerns. They absolutely do, which is good because when we talk about assessment and treatment, we can use very similar skills and so on. Nevertheless, when we also provide assessment and intervention, we need to target it to the specific needs of the population. We need to be aware, as we just talked about, of the unique stressors that Canadian farmers go through.
One layer is very important. There has been some common conversation around the point at which there is a crisis so we can intervene. That's a very important question we need to find out about, which is also true for any population. Again, you mentioned police. We want to find out for our first responders and so on. Really also we want to make that shift right now for most populations and organizations. With mental health at work and everything, we're really working towards prevention more than on crisis management. It's really about mental health promotion and prevention, and early intervention.
If we target prevention rather than crisis intervention, not only for them but for our society, then as a nation as a whole, we would benefit most.
Stigma reduction is a very interesting term.
I know within the farming community—we've had lots of testimony to support this—that there is a stigma about coming out to talk about mental health issues.
We have had success in other professions, notably the Canadian Armed Forces, and among veterans groups, first responders. However, there's also a stigma surrounding the use of illicit substances—the stigma of their ongoing criminality.
I know that the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has talked about the subject of decriminalization. Do you think, in trying to encourage people to come forward to seek help with substance abuse, particularly with illicit substances, that this is maybe a conversation we should start having?
Generally speaking, I think that any conversations around any health issue can start such a great path. However, it goes with the ups and downs. We're talking about human need, so absolutely it's very important.
I like the fact that you mentioned that with first responders, and police and veterans and the armed forces, we are noticing a stigma reduction. It took so much work. We have noticed that difference in the past five years, and more so in the past two to five years. There's still prominent stigma, absolutely, but we have worked so hard around changing the culture, which is very much needed right now.
We're for our Canadian farmers, and that's why what you're starting right now.... We're all sending our heart and gratitude to what you're doing right now, because it's very much that conversation, the dialogue, that is needed. Hopefully, they're also hearing us. When we are able to change their mindset and that culture, we're also able to reduce the stigma.
It's interesting, because if we also look at similarities across populations. I don't see much of a difference. The adage is very much the same there. It's the perception that if I talk, then it means I'm weak, that I'm dependent. It's not the case. It's very much learning that you can do the wonderful work that you're doing—we're so appreciative of that work—and you are also strong and powerful. At the same time, you can ask for help; you can be in need.
Those two issues are not mutually exclusive, and they're part of being a human being. That's the very concept that, hopefully, with a lot of ongoing conversation, as we're doing right now—discussions and dialogue and education—we can help to change the culture.
Mr. McFadyen, for the last couple of minutes I have, I'll turn to you.
You sit at a nexus, particularly with the information you have at your fingertips from the experiences of your organization about what works and what doesn't. You have a lot of those lived experiences. I think this is a very general question. Ultimately, we as a committee want to make recommendations, and we have fantastic analysts who are taking care and looking at all of the testimony. I want to give you the opportunity, in the minute and a half I have left.
From your point of view, with all the expertise you have, what do you think the strengths of the federal government are in tackling this issue, and what do you think we as a committee should be recommending that the federal government do more of?
Thank you to both witnesses for being here. We really appreciate the time and effort you took to be here with us today, as well as your work.
I'll start with Mr. McFadyen.
Certainly as an agricultural producer and somebody who's been actively engaged in agriculture my entire life and seen not only my own struggles but the struggles of other members of my family who are also producers, it's something that's close to my heart.
I want to start by asking you how you feel the federal government could do a better job, or what measures could be put in place to help support farmers around mental illness and mental health care over a long-term strategy. What do you feel would be the best way forward or would have the most measurable impact in a positive manner for the agriculture community? How could the federal government help most quickly and with the most impact in supporting your work?
The access to services, I think, is the key piece. They kind of work together, reducing the stigma and also educating—the communications strategy in relation to letting people know of the services available.
When we triage people from crisis intervention, we need that next piece in relation to providing them with some ongoing services and for that to be done in a timely fashion. I think that portion of it is not available now. There are waiting lists for family counselling and mental health services.
I know that personally. My son experienced a mental health issue, and there was no predictability around that. He was in Toronto at the time and got services from CAMH, which was very responsive and made a significant difference in his life. He's found stability as a result. When you look at the rural population and you're talking about how to predict who's going to have a mental health crisis and who's not, we could have never predicted that with our son.
When you look at the people who access crisis services, you're looking at maybe 10% of the overall population who don't have those same social networks where they can get support. They don't have professional support. Sometimes it's a matter of not feeling comfortable about coming out and talking about the issues they're having.
You're right about that. If we're talking about the majority, speaking of Canada overall, one in five individuals suffer from mental health problems, which is not surprising. It's the same for physical health problems. To find better ways to reach the population and also so they believe us, they trust us, comes over time. We need to be persistent, consistent and creative. Obviously, when we adopt an activity, there could always be trial and error.
For example, I would go specifically to all those places with anything that could be on television, any ads, anything within workplaces, anything that could be within their neighbourhood, the grocery store and so on, and put ads here or there.
As was mentioned, access to services is extremely important but also before access to services, there is the pain and the suffering in silence. Any of those conversations or anything in pamphlets that they would see, for us to reframe the culture and say they're struggling, at the same time is all within one package. That's very normal. Making that consistent so they see it and they also start talking about it is how we can see the changes. This is also what we have noted in the other populations.
The other aspect we see is how it works in other populations, When we have people within a population, it could be a president, a chair, a leader, whoever, talking about their own struggles, their own issues and normalizing them, then it makes others coming forward more comfortable.