What On Earth

Extreme weather events have strained farmers' mental health. But asking for help still a hurdle for many

Farmers in B.C. say the past year of extreme weather events has affected their mental health and are warning that many in the agricultural sector are reluctant to seek help when they need it. Some researchers are developing supports with the agricultural life in mind.

Researchers developing mental health resources with farmers in mind

A truck on a farm is submerged in water during flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., on Nov. 15, 2021. Farmers in B.C. endured a series of extreme weather events in 2021, from a heat dome and wildfires to major floods, and that has taken a toll on their mental health. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The past year has not been easy for farmers in B.C. like Julia Smith.

In the summer of 2021, a heat dome trapped dangerously high temperatures over the province. Wildfires in B.C.'s Interior spread flames and smoke across the landscape, destroying the town of Lytton and threatening Smith's farm and ranch in the Nicola Valley.

"We were actually having to evacuate cattle off the range because they were kind of in harm's way," she told CBC Radio's What on Earth. "Holy smokes, that fire came through like a tornado."

And that wasn't the end of it. In November, a series of atmospheric rivers flooded the province, inundating farmland that had endured blistering heat just months before.

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Julia Smith is a farmer and rancher based in B.C.'s Nicola Valley. She says the extreme weather events have had a serious impact on her mental health and that of other farmers and their families. (Submitted by Julia Smith)

Smith says some of her friends and neighbours lost equipment, animals and hectares of land last year. She helped some of them evacuate their homes or move animals to safer ground. By the end of the year, she felt as though she'd hit a wall.

"I just really started to burn out pretty hard," she said. "You feel guilty because you didn't lose as much as some people, but you just want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over your head. But you can't, because there's so many terrible things going on."

Extreme weather changing how farmers work

Farmers' lives and work have always been subject to the unpredictability of weather. But as the impacts of climate change on weather become more apparent, that unpredictability is becoming greater.

Farmers who, for generations, had guaranteed times for harvests, for example, are finding they no longer do.

Recent studies suggest farmers have higher levels of stress than the general population. According to a report from the Cambridge Times, uncertainty around the ongoing climate crisis — as well as the COVID-19 pandemic — have made those problems worse.

Briana Hagen, a postdoctoral researcher who studies farmers' mental health at the University of Guelph in Ontario, says farmers she's spoken to recently cited the impacts of climate change as a major cause of anxiety and depression. She's currently working on synthesizing those conversations into a more in-depth analysis on the topic.

"The extreme weather that happens season to season has made the farming process fundamentally different, more challenging and less predictable," she said.

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Finances an added stressor

The stress of adapting to these changes financially, let alone recovering from damage already done, adds another layer of difficulty for farmers. 

Soon after the November floods, the B.C. government promised that financial help was on the way for farmers who had endured the onslaught of traumatic events.

But Nicole Kooyman, who runs a poultry farm with her husband in the Fraser Valley, says for many farmers, navigating the paperwork to access those supports compounded the anxiety. 

"It's just an extra stress on what we've already went through, and that is what's going to push people over the edge," she said. 

Smith attends to some of her animals on her Nicola Valley farm. (Tori Ball/Submitted by Julia Smith)

B.C.'s Ministry of Agriculture and Food told What on Earth it established a flood-recovery program worth $228 million and is processing claims from farmers on a regular basis. In addition, Emergency Management B.C. says it has added staff and has been working evenings and weekends to deal with the applications.

The nonprofit organization AgSafe BC offers some resources as well, including free counselling for B.C. farmers, but Smith says farmers don't always have the capacity to make use of them.

"It's the bottom of the list when you're dealing with literally life-and-death situations," she said. "You can't stop and check in with yourself. What if you're not OK? What if you fall apart? ... You can't really look it in the eye, because it might overwhelm you."

Mental health stigma persists

Hagen says some farmers are hesitant to seek help even if they know they need it. The image of a hardworking, self-sufficient, stoic farmer endures and can be a real barrier to reaching out.

"People don't want to be seen as weak," she said.

Last November's flooding came after Avtar Dhillon, a farmer in Abbotsford, B.C., invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in planting what would have been the province's first crop of saffron.

He ended up losing all of it, as well as 90 per cent of his blueberry crop. Before that, during the heat dome, he'd lost half his blueberry crop.

Avtar Dhillon working at a saffron patch on his farm in early November 2021, before floods devastated his crop. (Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC)

There are many Indo-Canadian blueberry farmers like Dhillon in the Fraser Valley who have been impacted by natural disasters, but, he says, very few want to reach out for mental health or emotional support.

"I know many farmers [who are] already suffering with their mental health," he said. "Nobody wants to say, 'I have a problem,' but ... we really need help."

What's more, for the many farmers who live in small towns, the stigma that persists about mental illness means someone might want to hide the fact they need or are already getting help for fear others in the community might find out.

The Khukhrana Blueberry Farm in Arnold, B.C., about 15 km southeast from Dhillon's farm, after a damaging flood destroyed crops in November 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

New programs address farmers' unique challenges

In 2019, Hagen and her colleague Andria Jones-Bitton co-created a program called In the Know, which Hagen describes as a farm-specific, mental-health literacy training program. It aims to provide farmers with information about mental health, including recognizing signs and symptoms of mental health stress, as well as how to get help.

Hagen and Jones-Bitton also developed what's known as the emergency-response model for mental health during agricultural crises, a set of guidelines that address the specific challenges farmers face.

"If you don't have the farming context down, you're not going to be able to help effectively," Hagen said.

Briana Hagen is a postdoctoral researchers who studies farmers' mental health at the University of Guelph in Ontario. (Submitted by Briana Hagen)

Deborah Vanberkel, a psychotherapist whose family runs a dairy farm in Odessa, Ont., founded the Farmer Wellness Program in Ontario for many of the same reasons. 

"I kept hearing from all our farmer friends ... that when they wanted to talk to somebody, it was, 'Who is going to understand my lifestyle? How are they going to understand?'" she said.

"This is why we need to have therapists to have that [agriculture] background, so that these barriers are removed and they [farmers] can come in and start talking about the problems that they're having and be able to have that person relate back to them without having to explain all the details or nitty-gritty about farming itself."

Vanberkel's wellness program was modelled on a similar one in P.E.I., and a third launched in Manitoba more recently. But gaps remain in other parts of the country.

"We need to expand all of these types of farmer wellness programs across Canada ... so that all farmers can access services that are tailored for themselves and their families," Vanberkel said. 

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Rachel Sanders.

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