Chronic stress among farmers is on the rise, University of Guelph study finds

Mental health in Canadian agriculture is no longer a foreign term, however, there is still plenty of work to be done. A new study out of the University of Guelph has made that even more clear.

Prior to this study, there was a study conducted in 2015-2016, says Andria Jones-Bitton, of the University of Guelph.

In the time following that study, new mental health programs and assistance has become more available across the agricultural industry; however, the results of the latest study suggest that more resources has had little positive impact.

“Since that [original study], we have seen the benefit of some new programs and support. We might have hoped to have seen some improvements in some of those mental health statistics, but then, of course, the global pandemic hit. So what we’ve actually seen is very similar, or potentially even worse, statistics around the mental health outcomes now compared to 2015-2016,” says Jones-Bitton.

The research team found that 76 per cent of farmers said they were currently experiencing moderate or high perceived stress, on the Perceived Stress Scale.

That number, says Jones-Bitton, is quite high. Of course every situation is individual, however, occupational stressors farmers experience are quite often outside the realm of their control, especially when we look at stressors such as weather, government relations, bureaucratic paperwork, market instability, and more. (Story continues below interview)

“All of those things have serious impacts, and then they’re also completely outside of the farmers control. And we know that as humans, we like to have some influence over our problems. When we don’t, it can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

“We know stress and stress hormones affects literally every cell type in our body. So this really paints a highly stressful chronic stress situation for our farmers,” she says.

Currently, the research team is getting deeper into statistics and models to look at risk factors for stress, especially among different demographics.

At this point in time, many are aware that there is a difference between good stress and bad stress — and at a certain point, where the stress becomes too much. The beneficial stress — also known as the EU stress — is the one that induces a physiological response to motivate us, and helps keep us focused.

As Jones-Bitton explains, on the other side of the coin, there’s distress, which is where the chronic stress (discussed in the study) kicks in.

“This is when that stress response has been going on for a long time. The stress response is very high. We’re chronically living with high stress hormones raging throughout the body,” she says. “When we are distressed, what we see is our focus is down, we’re not able to concentrate, we’re likely experiencing fatigue, potentially even extending into exhaustion. We’re potentially having feelings of anxiety, or in the really chronic, more serious side of things, maybe having burnout. So with that, we’re designed to be able to handle short bursts of stress, but with this every day long term stress, it starts to impact our body systems.”

Check out the full study, here.

Read More: Is it burnout?