It’s a bleak harvest season on Sean Stanford’s farm south of Lethbridge, where just three inches of rain has fallen since the first of May.
Like many farmers in southern Alberta, the 34-year-old Stanford had high hopes for his crop at the start of the year. But by mid-June the rains had stopped coming and his spring wheat, canola, flax and yellow peas baked in the dried-out fields. Now, it’s time to get the crop off, but Stanford already knows there will be no great payoff once it’s in the bin.
“The yields are not looking good,” said Stanford. “Basically we’ve just seen a whole year’s worth of work erode away because of something we can’t control.”
The near round-the-clock workload combined with the prospect of negative returns can make harvest a challenging time for any farmer. But for Stanford, who was diagnosed with anxiety almost two years ago, the mental health risks are real. When the negative feelings start to take hold, he makes a conscious choice to get off the combine and seek human contact.
“Taking breaks — something as simple as taking a grain sample to town and talking to the people at the grain elevator — can be enough to reset my mind and take me out of the monotony of combining a horrible crop,” he said. “And I make sure that I make phone calls throughout the day and talk to different people. It’s a distraction from what’s going on.”
Stanford is an outlier among his peers, in that he has chosen to be open about his struggles with mental health. A University of Guelph study in 2016 found farmers are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to mental health, reporting higher levels of stress, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout than the general population. The same study found 40 per cent of agricultural producers would feel uneasy getting professional help due to the stigma that exists around the issue.
“I was afraid to talk about it, when I first got my diagnosis, but as time went on I started to realize, ‘hey, I’m not alone,’ ” said Stanford, who tried three different medications before finding one that helped to control his symptoms, which he describes as a physical feeling, like “having a heart attack or a stroke or an aneurysm.”
“Farmers are supposed to be strong, independent, salt of the earth people who don’t need help from anybody,” he …read more