By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Farmers, you are doing a great job! That was the message a full house of rural leaders, farmers and mental health advocates heard at Four Winds Barn in Brussels at the launch of S.H.E.D. (Sustaining Healthy Farms Through Empowerment and Dedication) talks launch in southwestern Ontario. S.H.E.D. talks are an initiative of Gateway, the Centre for Excellence in Rural Health.
Both Tom Melady, who spoke on his experience with depression and Peter Johnson ‘Wheat Pete’ who spoke on why farmers should be proud, shared this sentiment. It’s important to hear it, said Johnson, adding he recently met with a farmer who said he felt troubled about farming. “I feel we are poisoning the land and I am ashamed to be a farmer,” he was told.
“When we talk about mental health, can you imagine the burden that puts on you if you actually have that mindset?” asked Johnson. He then shared data (story in the February issue of The Rural Voice) on how productive farmers are and said the reality of what farmers have done in terms of feeding the world and making improvements to soil health is something farmers should be proud of. Farmers have a purpose, and pride in their work is part of mental wellness.
Tom Melady agreed. A retired farmer from Perth County he waxed an almost fairy-tale-like existence from his early days of farming, before farmers experienced isolation.
“Think about this. In a block of land 10 by eight miles, there are about 10,000 acres. Back 70 years, there were about 100 families in the space, each operating around 100 acres,” he began. “There were churches, community centres, grocery stores and a neighbour across the fence in the back 40 you could talk to. There were card parties, church suppers, community caring and closeness.”
Compared that to now where the same space of 10,000 acres is maybe run by 10 to 15 active farmers, each running 1,000 acres. “The local church is closed, the community centre is less active, we shop at Costco and there is no fence to talk over. In fact, they are so busy, there is no time to talk,” he said.
In less than 100 years, many of the social supports that once nurtured good mental health are gone.
It was isolation and stress that led to Melady’s breakdown back in 1992. Though it was 30 years ago, what happened to him is exactly the same as what could happen to anyone today. Melady said they were building a new barn in 1992 which was “the worst year of farming I ever had and many farmers would say that.” Most of the corn was plowed down and it was just a miserable year. “The wear and tear of that year cause me to slide into a clinical depression and I was big, strong Tom Melady…I never thought it would be possible.”
He felt stressed and he felt isolated in his thoughts and experience. “What happened to me was a psychological response. We all respond differently and that was the way I responded that year. Another year, another time I might have responded in a different way.”
Melady said he slid into his depression over a two-month period and when crisis day came, his wife Joanne had no idea who to call or what to do. He wished they’d had a number on their fridge for someone she could have called and urged everyone in attendance to have a number of a support person on their fridge in case they are ever in a mental crisis.
Quoting statistics from a University of Guelph study on mental health amongst farmers, he said the results from the Ontario portion of the study revealed 22 per cent of farmers experience anxiety at a moderate to high rate. “That means every fifth farmer is experiencing moderate to high anxiety,” said Melady. Thoughts of suicide amongst Ontairo farmers are two times higher than the statistical norm.
“We need to be talking about our stress levels when managing our farms,” he said. “How are interest rates affecting my business; how am I reacting to this as a manager; how is it affecting my coworkers, my husband, my wife, my children?”
That’s why Melady is in full support of Gateway’s S.H.E.D. talks. “Gateway is creating a venue to initiate some discussion in your farm community about your farm needs, your farm pitfalls and your farm worries.”
He urged those present to be leaders and host a gathering of farm friends, however it works for them. “Maybe it's over a real good game of cards!” he laughed. Other ideas included getting together to hear a guest speaker talk about their trip, have a fashion show with every farmer showing off their latest cap, or just meeting at the local restaurant.
“S.H.E.D. talks is about coming together shoulder to shoulder with those in your community that share the same problems, the same stresses and the same pitfalls,” said Melady. “It’s about being a friend, being a confidant, being a support for one another because that creates community, caring and closeness – all characteristics that support good mental health.” ◊