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Farmer Wellness: The Dark Side of Resilience

By: Dr. Leith Deacon & Lauren Van Ewyk, PhD Student

"Old Fence by the Trail" Sage Milne, 2023

Resilience has become a buzz word; it is widely used to refer to an individual or a community’s ability to withstand challenges, our ability to bounce back, or recover quickly from difficulties. Resilience can include climate change resilience, natural resilience, physical resilience, and mental resilience. And, we work to raise resilient children, to maintain resilient relationships, and cultivate resilient health. We have normalized resilience – if we work to develop sufficient “resilience skills”, we will be unstoppable no matter what event occurs.

 

Is this true?


Some scholars have argued that when an individual or community relies too heavily on resilience and over-promotes the development of resilience skills, it leads to compromised efficacy, inadequacies, and exhaustion. For example, across the Ontario agriculture sector, farmers have been required to demonstrate resilience continually in the face of market fluctuation, weather pattern changes, rising debt levels, and the impact of generational trauma. Farmers have endured long periods of chronic stress, requiring further resilience skills.

 

Becky Higgs presents at SHED Talks Launch - A Farmers' Wellbeing project by Gateway CERH, 2023

Farmer mental health is a significant concern in our rural communities. Research has highlighted that post-pandemic farmers’ wellness has declined, most significantly among rural women (Deacon et al., 2023), that across Canada, suicide is a leading cause of death for males under the age of 45 (Statistics Canada, 2022), and in rural communities, males are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide than their urban counterparts (https://kmb.camh.ca/). Bring this up to those in the agricultural community, there is little surprise.  

 

Farmers must be continually resilient; Farmers must be economically resilient because of cost fluctuations, input costs, and/or cancelled contracts. They must keep a resilient household to navigate multigenerational farm transition. They must be physically resilient to respond to health complications, mentally resilient to support the impact of trauma on their children or the stress between a farmer and their partner, climate resilient to counter weather-related stress and their inability to get their crop to harvest, and community resilient to continue to lead within their community. For many farmers, they have nothing left. They are exhausted. Their families are exhausted. The have used up all their resilience.

 

Resilience is not the ability to “bounce back” or “recover quickly.” It is a willingness to learn, accept support, pivot, and build the skills needed to develop meaningful relationships with others. Resilience rarely happens “quickly”; rather, it is a commitment to a long-term goal in which hopefulness grows in partnership with vulnerability.


The excessive use of resilience can prevent authentic vulnerability from existing, leading to emotional and relational isolation, exhaustion, and burnout. Authentic vulnerability builds intimacy in relationships. Farmers have heard the cry to remain resilient in the face of adversity and have risen to the occasion repeatedly.  However, it has come at the cost of vulnerability with one another, with helping professionals, and those they cherish the most in their lives. It is vulnerability that allows us to be transparent with our children and to validate the hard things/events in life. It is vulnerability that enables us to lean on one another.

 

Logo of Ag-Informed Therapy, 2024

We must rural-proof policy; Our rural communities require services and supports that are provided through an agricultural lens. Policy must be reflective reflective of their needs and concerns and of the people who live there. One of the most significant barriers to farmers' accessing support is the lack of awareness of the issues they face. Programs such as Agriculture Informed Therapy (AIT) (https://nfmha.ca/) provide critical education to professionals, ensuring farmers experience validation in their interactions. It also ensures that the therapeutic skills and strategies recommended for farmers are relevant to their healing journey.


Rural resilience is not the absence of challenges, nor is it the ability to move toward and through endless challenges concurrently. Rather, it is the ability to recognize that farming is complex and, at times, lonely. It presents unprecedented challenges and can be incredibly rewarding. Rural resilience requires us to build social capital within our families and communities, advocate for rural-specific policies, and work collectively to support one another in a way that validates a farmer’s contribution.


About Authors

Dr. Leith Deacon, Gateway CERH Research Chair of Rural Resiliency

Dr. Leith Deacon is an Associate Professor in Rural Planning and Development at the University of Guelph and a Gateway CERH Research Chair of Rural Resiliency. He is a full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners (CIP) and a Registered Professional Planner (RPP). Leith is interested in supporting the long-term resilience and sustainability of rural communities and their residents. Within his capacity as a Research Chair at Gateway CERH, has guided research and knowledge translation of the Be Well, Work Well project including the presentation of the results in a virtual rural health lecture.


Lauren Van Ewyk, PhD Student, University of Guelph

Lauren Van Ewyk is a sheep farmer, registered social worker, foster mom and agricultural mental health advocate. She has appeared in numerous radio, television and print articles concerning the issues of mental wellness and mental health in the agriculture sector. She is a PhD student at the University of Guelph in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development (SEDRD). As a founding member and CEO of the National Farmer Mental Health Alliance, Lauren is committed to partnering with professionals to become culturally informed in their care for rural members.



Resources for Farmers

 

The views expressed in this blog post may not necessarily reflect Gateway CERH’s views or opinions, but we believe in providing a platform for a range of perspectives and thoughtful discussion. 


About Gateway Centre of Excellence in Rural Health

Founded in 2008 in the community of Seaforth, ON, Gateway CERH is a not-for-profit rural health research organization run by a community-based volunteer board of directors. Gateway CERH's main mission is to better the health and quality of life of rural residents through research, education and communication. Learn more on the Gateway CERH website at: https://www.gatewayruralhealth.ca/ and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube 

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