Nfld. & Labrador

This farmer struggled with severe depression. And he says he's one of the lucky ones

Andy Wright hit a low four years ago. Now, he's sharing his story in the hopes of getting more farmers to share theirs.

Andy Wright hopes to break down stigma in the farming industry

After a lifetime in agriculture, Andy Wright finally opened up his own farm in Pasadena six years ago. In its second year, he was diagnosed with severe depression. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

The wind has a whiff of November in it as Andy Wright surveys his nearly empty fields. 2019 was a great year for raspberries, a terrible one for pumpkins.

But the Pasadena farmer knows better now than to purely blame himself for any failures or early frosts, a big change from how he felt four years ago, farming in the fog of undiagnosed severe depression.

"I was finding I was telling myself stuff, that I know wasn't true. 'Andy you're useless. Andy you're incapable. Andy, you're stupid," Wright recalls.

He had been struggling for years, but at that point reached out for help. After his doctor referred him on to a therapist, it became clear his outwardly sunny, self-deprecating manner was camouflaging internal turmoil "worse than even my counsellor thought."

"She said, 'Jeez, Andy, you are struggling with depression. And you hid it really well, even from me.'"

Wright was angry when his counsellor suggested medication as a course of action. "I probably hit my lowest low the day or two after I started taking them," he says.

But since then, he's made steady progress toward wellness, aided along the way by family, friends and his own training as an ordained minister with the United Church of Canada, which he says probably helped him seek help in the first place. 

"I was lucky," he says. "It requires a fair bit of strength and courage to deal with it every single day, but also to be talking about it."

Wright says there are a variety of stresses in agriculture that can take a toll on mental health, from weather to competing internationally for markets. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

A national conversation

When asked how often mental health comes up among his agricultural colleagues, Wright's reply is immediate.

"Never." 

But that silence doesn't mean Wright is the only one struggling. Do More Ag, a national non-profit group that focuses on mental health in agriculture, says it has received calls from Newfoundland and Labrador farmers looking for help.

Do More Ag is a young organization, having launched in January 2018. With an emphasis on the word "more," its staff have been highlighting the stresses of agriculture, and offering training and programs in areas like rural mental health.

"We're seeing people ready for this conversation," says Adelle Stewart, its executive director.

We need to smarten up and get together and help each other out through this stuff.- Andy Wright

It's a conversation that's probably overdue. A University of Guelph study of Canadian farmers in 2016 found 45 per cent of respondents dealing with high stress, while  about 60 per cent of them had high anxiety levels.

In May, Agrifoods Canada tabled a report called Mental Health: A Priority For Our Farmers, stating, "the mental health of farmers is a troubling issue that has been overlooked for a long time," and released a list of recommendations on how to address it.

Stewart says Do More Ag staff work closely with provincial stress and mental health helplines, which she says are fielding an increasing number of calls from farmers.

"It's encouraging that people are using the services and more people are using them. At the same time it tells us what sort of crisis levels we are experiencing as a nation," said Stewart.

'From crisis to crisis to crisis'

Do More Ag was founded in Saskatchewan, a powerhouse in Canadian agriculture. And while Newfoundland and Labrador has the fewest farms of any province, the stresses of the industry pay little regard to its size.

"So many things are out of your control," says Wright, who can rattle off a list of anxiety-creating scenarios, from the isolation of spending the majority of your time out in the field, to being at the mercy of Mother Nature.

"We have no control over the weather. Here, if it gets dry, I can make it rain with irrigation. But I can't stop it from raining, and I can't do anything about how much sunshine we get," he says, the latter's heat so crucial for his main berry crops.

2019 was a hard year on pumpkins, says Wright. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Despite having a lifetime of agricultural experience, Wright says his first season operating in Pasadena as his own boss was the worst year he'd ever had in the sector.

"It was a very steep learning curve. In the first year, I ran from crisis to crisis to crisis. I'd wake up in the morning, and I didn't know what the next day had in store."

Farming stress can even come from farther afield, as Wright pointed out that international trade deals carry huge impacts for even the smallest farmers, a sentiment well known out west.

"We have to be extremely strategic and extremely flexible, ready for anything and planning for the future, every day that  we wake up. It can be daunting sometimes," says Stewart.

Asking for help

Aside from the external factors, Wright sees a self-fulfilling aspect of the stigma surrounding mental health in his industry.

"There's this image of the farmer, how tough we are. And you gotta be, you gotta have thick skin. But I think it just makes it worse," he said.

"We need to smarten up and get together and help each other out through this stuff."

Wright hopes by sharing his story, it will help others start the difficult conversation and create momentum for change — which, however slowly, appears to be building.

Mental health has "been elevated to one of the biggest priorities on our pile," says Merv Wiseman, the chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Agriculture, although he admits that any initiatives are in the very beginning stages.

The Agrifoods mental health report, which stated there "is a long way to go" before farmers' mental health is properly addressed, did note there were steps being taken, such as new resources available from 4-H Canada.

And as Wright contemplates his dirt-creased hands, he speaks of his deep love for his farm.

He'll be back out in his fields in 2020, knowing his depression will be there too — but he also knows he has the supports in place to keep it from overwhelming him.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lindsay Bird

CBC News

Lindsay Bird is a journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in Corner Brook.

With files from CBC Newfoundland Morning

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