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Anxiety and depression far above the norm for P.E.I. farmers, doctor finds

In early 2022, P.E.I. potato farmers like Alex Docherty of Skye View Farms were forced to dump and destroy hundreds of millions of pounds of potatoes, another stressor in an already stressful occupation.   (Submitted by Alex Docherty - image credit)
In early 2022, P.E.I. potato farmers like Alex Docherty of Skye View Farms were forced to dump and destroy hundreds of millions of pounds of potatoes, another stressor in an already stressful occupation. (Submitted by Alex Docherty - image credit)

Dr. Meghan Cameron knew anxiety and depression were a problem for farmers, but she didn't suspect just how bad it was.

Cameron moved to Prince Edward Island about six months ago and set up a practice in Crapaud, about 40 kilometres west of Charlottetown. She grew up on a beef farm in Nova Scotia and is married to a P.E.I. potato farmer.

Living in that community, it was impossible for her not to be aware of anxiety and depression

"I've seen throughout the years, with my father, how farming has affected his mental health," she said.

Dr. Meghan Cameron wants people to understand how big a problem anxiety and depression are for farmers. (Submitted by Dr. Meghan Cameron)

But Cameron wanted more specific information to get a handle on just how much support farmers need. She designed a questionnaire consisting of questions about mental health and sent it out. More than 100 farmers answered.

As familiar as she is with the community, the results surprised her. Two-thirds of the responding farmers answered in ways indicating mild to severe depression, more than three times the rate in the general public.

Four out of five respondents reported signs of mild to severe anxiety, which is more than five times the proportion in the general public.

This study did not ask about causes, but Cameron is familiar with what similar studies that have been done around the world have said about that.

"Farming is unique," she said. "There's stress to keep the farm in the family for generations to come, complex regulation, disease and pest management issues, variable market prices, and that crunch to either plant or harvest in such a restricted time frame."

Adding to that stress is that so many of these factors are entirely out of the farmer's control.

More than a job

Cameron sent out her survey while the Prince Edward Island farming community was still feeling the impact of the 2021 potato wart crisis, which she says would have led to feelings of "devastation."

Potato wart found in two P.E.I. fields led to the closure of the U.S. border to sales of fresh potatoes from the Island. With no market, much of the province's potato crop had to be destroyed that year.

Seeing millions of pounds of potatoes going through a snowblower — it's basically looking at money just being thrown away. It's their livelihood, it's their reputation. — Dr. Meghan Cameron

"Seeing millions of pounds of potatoes going through a snowblower — it's basically looking at money just being thrown away," said Cameron.

"It's their livelihood, it's their reputation, and to damage that is so significant, and I think we underestimate that part of it. It's the reputation of farms that have been in families for years."

CBC News talked to farmer Jason Webster at the time.

Jason Webster of MWM Farms in Kinkora is shown with his unsellable 2021 crop in this file photo. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"When we know there's people hungry, that need it and we know there's a market that demands it, it's just heartbreaking for everyone," he said of having to destroy part of his crop.

"When you hit three years of drought and then hit a real good year, and then all of a sudden things get turned into turmoil like this, do we really want to ask our children to bear this burden?"

FarmersTalk program

There is help available for farmers, Cameron said.

FarmersTalk is an initiative of P.E.I.'s provincial government. At a dedicated website, farmers can finding listings of resources available to support their mental health, including a phone line staffed with counsellors prepared to help with the kinds of problems farmers face.

Cameron encourages people in the agricultural industry to use it.

The main goal of her research is to raise awareness of the problem, Cameron said, and the work is not done. She is planning a further survey to look at what is causing stress for P.E.I. farmers in particular.