In times of crisis, putting the farm first can be a big mistake

Neglecting your mental health during times of high stress is not the way to treat your farm’s top asset

Cynthia Beck is a master’s student in clinical psychology, and works in rural mental health in Saskatchewan. She offered some tips on how to manage stress and mental health challenges during a recent webinar.
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Farming is stressful at the best of times, and with drought piled on top of a pandemic, the farm community is currently experiencing “really high rates of chronic stress,” says an expert.

And it’s actually made worse by the strong work ethic of producers when times get tough, said Cynthia Beck, a crop and cattle producer who is also a master’s student in clinical psychology at the University of Regina.

“The farm work is our top priority and everything falls to the bottom during a crisis situation,” Beck said during a recent Canadian Cattlemen’s Association webinar. “When we are experiencing a crisis and we put work on the very top and put our noses to the grindstone and try to work through the problems, we do have the potential to become less of an asset to our operations.”

Farmers also have an unusual job in that they have to be a jack-of-all-trades — mechanics, agronomists and/or vets, business managers, accountants and marketers — often while working with family members and managing those relationships, said Beck, who farms with her family in Saskatchewan.

“You are also the farm labourer who does an incredible amount of work,” she said.

Doing it all is challenging enough when things are going well, but this is a time of severe crisis for many, she said.

“I want to point out that our ability to be an asset is greatly impacted by lack of sleep, dehydration and poor nutrition,” she said.

Fuelling up on coffee, using alcohol or drugs as a relief valve, and misuse of prescription medication doesn’t relieve chronic stress, which builds over time, she noted.

“Physical health and mental health go hand in hand. One of them affects the other. It is just like a circle.”

People who are stressed often feel exhausted or have a shorter fuse. And they’re at a higher risk of making a costly mistake.

“Stress can impact our decision-making, which impacts our farm business all the time. It can also impact our risk-taking behaviour,” said Beck.

There are warning signs that can indicate if someone is struggling — changes of routine, sleep patterns, and even hygiene.

“If you have a neighbour who is always clean shaven and always showered and wearing clean clothes, and suddenly you see them and they are scruffy and dirty, there may be something going on for them,” she said.

Changes in diet or substance use can also indicate a mental health problem as can someone’s energy levels (either high or low) or being emotionally flat. They may have trouble concentrating, isolate themselves or take unnecessary risks (or make uncharacteristic or hasty decisions).

The farm can also be an indicator — such as when animals are not being properly cared for or when “you see deterioration around the farm.”

And although people often wrongly fault themselves when they’re struggling to cope, it helps if you can avoid always thinking about “the worst-case scenario” and instead focus on facts, situations and possible solutions. (Beck also advises taking a break from social media.)

Again, getting enough sleep, eating properly and drinking enough water are very important.

And even though it can be very hard, reach out for help, she said.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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