The final push is on to reach 1,000 farmers across Canada by the end of this month, for the first-ever national mental wellness survey of those who produce our food.
When this initiative started in the fall, survey co-ordinator Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton of the University of Guelph said she hoped to reach that milestone by the end of the year. It was revised to the end of January, as its intake grew.
Jones-Bitton, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Medicine, Ontario Veterinary College, was determined to reach the 1,000-producer plateau. She passionately reached out to producer groups and the media — most lately, the national media, who've come to the table, sometimes more than once, to draw attention to mental health issues and her study.
The Twitter universe, in which agriculture is highly active, also joined the sprint to the finish line.
"Please take time to do the survey on mental health in ag," tweeted @JanineLunn last Wednesday. "There's a lot at stake here and it affects us all."
By March, Jones-Bitton expects to be able to speak in concrete terms about the prevalence of, among other things, farmer depression, anxiety and resilience.
And based on her early impressions, the results will be eye-opening.
For example, among the many producers she's spoken to since the study began, she's detected what she describes as a "palpable sense of relief" about the issue of mental health in agriculture being raised in an open forum.
"It's kind of a big exhale, and a feeling of 'Oh, finally, we are going to start talking about it!'" she says.
She wonders: is that because mental health issues are something so many people have been dealing with, or at least know about, but no one's been talking about? With an estimated prevalence of one in five people in the general population alone, farmers and non-farmers alike are probably affected or know someone who has been affected by mental illness.
She also wonders if the study is now "opening the box," as she says, so the agricultural sector can accept the problem, own it and do something about it.
And that could very well be. In a very brief period of time, this study has mushroomed. It was born from an investigation of mental health issues facing livestock veterinarians, based on problems Jones-Bitton and her colleagues had observed — and in some cases, personally experienced. In its infancy, Jones-Bitton envisioned her study would focus on only livestock producers in Ontario. But before long, when word got out, she was urged and inspired to broaden it to include crop farmers too.
And finally, given interest from across the country, she and her team decided to open it up to all Canadian farmers.
Jones-Bitton hasn't yet taken an in-depth look at responses. But from an early glimpse at the opened-ended questions — the ones that ask how you feel, rather than yes-no-maybe — she's seeing evidence that farmers are feeling pressure from many avenues.
"One respondent's comment stuck with me … 'It feels like my entire way of life is under attack,'" she says. "Perhaps to farmers, the survey and news stories about it are helping to legitimize their feelings."
This study has certainly caught the public's imagination. People don't typically associate farmers with mental health struggles. Rather, they're seen as stoic, strong, able-bodied and able-minded.
But inside the farm community, the reality is different. Often, mental health challenges are attributed to isolation, constant uncertainty and pressure from weather, markets and politics.
Whatever the reason, when Jones-Bitton's study wraps up, the entire story will be clearer and evidence-based. Then the real work of addressing the problem begins. But you can't address it until you understand it. Thanks to Jones-Bitton, we're closer to understanding it than ever.
You can find the study at www.producerwellness.ca