Every culture has its myths. In North America, the land of cowboys and hardy pioneers, there’s two widely held beliefs: boys don’t cry and real men don’t falter in the face of adversity.
Pyschologist Greg Gibson of the Brandon Regional Health Authority in western Manitoba says the truth is that sooner or later, when locked into an overwhelmingly stressful situation, even the toughest men go to pieces.
History is filled with examples, from the captain of a sinking ship to the general facing utter defeat – sooner or later the pressure finally gets to them. It’s just that some are more sensitive to stress, and succumb to its effects sooner than others.
“Stress affects everybody,” said Gibson, in a presentation at a workshop sponsored by the Brandon RHA and the Manitoba Farm and Rural Stress Line.
WHEN GOOD STRESS GOES BAD
The body reacts to a challenge or stressful situation with an elevated heart rate, more intense mental focus and improved concentration. Once the stressor goes away, the body goes back to normal. Without some stress in life, it would be hard to stay motivated, he said.
“But what do you think happens when you have ongoing stresses – Stressors that are unrelenting, that continue on and on?” he asked.
“Are we still at that peak performance? We’re still mobilized to fight, we’ve got to keep working, but guys, our body can’t take that much stress.”
Hog barn owners and cattle ranchers are the ones feeling the pain right now, but with an estimated $60 billion in farm debt piled up and interest rates threatening to go higher, that same hurt could spread.
A 2005 survey of 1,100 farmers found that two-thirds were feeling stressed, and only two out of 10 had sought help.
Things may be tough all over, but farmers inhabit their own particular hell. In many cases, they are single-handedly confronted by weather, poor economic conditions and price volatility, massive debt pressures, and equipment breakdowns.
Add to that intergenerational conflicts, rural isolation, distance from health services, and for many, a dependence on the fortunes of an operation that is basically a one-trick pony and therefore susceptible to boom-or-bust economics.
Eventually, constant stress results in burnout, as the mind and body finally capitulate to the strain, he said.
Burnout first entered the medical vocabulary after studies of doctors during the Vietnam war showed a predictable list of symptoms, he added.
“It gets hard to concentrate. It’s almost like any decision that we’re faced with becomes an ordeal,” said Gibson.
“You’re looking at a complete shutdown, because our bodies can’t take that much more.”
Stress leads to burnout, then burnout opens the door to the downward spiral of depression.
Low energy, lack of interest in day-to-day activities, apathy, feelings of worthlessness, guilt or hopelessness, withdrawal from personal relationships, and changes in eating or sleeping habits are all symptoms.
Ironically, Gibson noted, some farmers faced with the pressures of imminent insolvency may react by embarking on a wild spending spree. Others become angry, and push away the very people who care about them most.
Outward signs include inability to handle problems on the farm, feeling anxious, restless or irritable, increased addictive behaviours such as drinking or smoking, and eventually suicidal thoughts.
Due to social expectations, men are less likely to seek help, more likely to react in unhealthy ways such as anger, isolation, addictions or becoming a workaholic, and are three to four times more likely to die by suicide.
“For many guys, to be able to say that you’re feeling depressed, or that your mood is low, that you can’t get out of this slump, or that you’re overstressed, is a sign of weakness – so you keep that in,” he said.
“There’s a strong work ethic; ‘I can do this, I can be strong.’ Some people have used the term, ‘Cowboy up’ to describe that.”
Many farmers may believe that seeking help is a waste of time, be in denial about their problems, or think they are too busy, he said.
“Many farm accidents are suicides in disguise,” said Gibson, adding that based on his experiences in counselling farmers, this was clearly true in many cases.
“It’s that hopelessness about the future. That ‘I-need-to-find-way-out,’ to be a good provider for my family. It is scary and terrifying that people can get into that state.”
Studies show that having morbid thoughts about death is normal, and 70 per cent of people have done it at some point in their life, he added.
Healthy outlets for stress or bad moods exist, including exercise, socializing, challenging negative thoughts, and remembering the positive things in life.
“Focus on the things that you can change,” said Gibson. “Sell the farm. I’m not suggesting that you do that, but nothing is worth your life.”