The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.
Episode 013 - Mental health: from the farmer's perspective
Cynthia Beck and her family run a cattle and grain operation in South-East Saskatchewan. After facing her own mental health challenges and discovering a lack of resources tailored towards the agricultural sector, Cynthia decided to do something about it. She shares her story of overcoming depression and her commitment to helping others in the agricultural community address their own mental health. For the past six years she has been a crisis line worker, specifically for producers and ranchers, and is currently completing a master's degree in clinical psychology at the University of Regina.
Cynthia: Take a look at your agricultural operation and recognize what the number one piece of equipment is that you couldn't live without on your farm operation and this is something that I tell to producers all the time when I ask people what is the number one piece of machinery that you use on your farm? And quite often people will say, well, it's the tractor or the combine or the air seeder or whatever. And I say, well, could that operate without you? No, your crops don't feed themselves, your cattle don't feed themselves, you, that individual, the farmer is the number one piece of machinery on their farm. It's to the point of being shocking how some people don't necessarily realize that they are experiencing difficulties, right, because perhaps that's being their way of operating for such a long time that that has become their normal, they may not even realize that they are experiencing mental health challenges.
Sara: Welcome back to the First Sixteen. I'm Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: I'm Kirk Finken.
Sara: The voice you heard at the top was Cynthia Beck. She and her family run a cattle and grain operation in South-East Saskatchewan, about an hour south of Regina.
Kirk: She has an important story to share and some valuable insights into mental health for producers.
Sara: You may have heard our earlier episode with Dr. Briana Hagen, a mental health care professional from Manitoba. She gave us some great insights into the overall situation of mental health in our sector.
Kirk: This interview with Cynthia Beck brings it home because she is a farmer who has experienced and overcome a bout of post-partum depression. She shares her own personal story dealing with mental health.
Sara: Cynthia also brings a deeper view to the issue. Yes, she has her own story. But since overcoming the depression, she has committed herself to helping other folks in the ag community to address their mental health. For the past six years, she has been a crisis line worker specifically for producers and ranchers. She is also working to complete a master's degree in clinical psychology.
Kirk: Just a warning about this interview, there is mention of suicide and sensitive topics.
Cynthia: Well, we operate a mixed farming operation. So we have a commercial herd and a purebred herd of cattle. And then we seed approximately six thousand acres of grain land. We farm with my husband's parents, my husband and myself and my husband's brother and his wife. Our children are also involved. So we have a 19 year old son he's attending university at the University of Saskatchewan, taking animal science and agribusiness. But he also comes home and is a very active member on the farm. We also have a 16 year old daughter who is an incredibly active member on the farm. And then my brother-in-law's kids are also active on the farm. So we truly are actively three generations working on the farm together.
Kirk: There are very few other sectors in Canada where you find three generations and extended family working together. That in itself can have a stabilizing effect on mental health, it can be quite meaningful.
Cynthia: This weekend even is a prime example of that. We had my mother in law and father in law and my husband, myself and our two kids. We were out moving cow calf pairs to a community pasture that's 15 miles away. And at the same time, my brother in law and his son are seeding. So it takes everyone and there's times where we all need to help each other and we need to pitch in. And I just think that it's kind of an honor, really, to be able to have all three generations working together.
Sara: Do you find within those generations that there's a different approach to mental health and talking about it? Is it different, say, between your generation and your kids' generation?
Cynthia: I do see a difference, I do see that younger generations are more openly talking about mental health the same way that they would talk about physical health. And I think that within our family, within our family unit of four, anyway, we have cultivated that environment where we hopefully can speak openly. If I am having a day where I'm not doing very well, I just let my family know, like I'm not doing very well, you guys. I'm putting myself in a timeout and that usually involves me sitting in my office with a cup of coffee and everybody honors and respects that there are no questions asked. If someone says that they need to take some time, they take it and everyone else kind of reps them in support and does what they can to provide them that opportunity. I do see changes even in speaking at agricultural events. I was speaking at a breeders association meeting and I was talking about breeding while being. So I identify how mental health really is similar to selecting or hurt sire for your cattle operation and Afterwards, there was a gentleman sitting in the crowd and he sat with his arms crossed, he had kind of this frown on his face. And then I got through the portion of my talk and I opened it up for questions. And this elderly farmer came up to me afterwards and he said, you know, I've thought about this mental health thing is total B.S. and I never really understood it. And he said, and now I get it. I understand why there is actually like a thing called mental health. Right. And I think that we can communicate or get the message across to any generation. We really just need to find a way to speak their language, a language that they can openly hear. So if you can talk mental health the same way that you would talk farming and use that language straight across the board, because there are parallels, then then you can reach any generation.
Sara: What are the unique challenges farmers have accessing mental health care?
Cynthia: Well, number one, the mental health care that's available in rural communities is quite slim. There are some rural communities who have mental health care providers. But even then, I would still say that there is not a lot of accessibility there, because even if a service is available, it doesn't mean it's accessible. And there's a couple of reasons for that. Number one, it might be that the care provider does not have adequate knowledge about agriculture, and so they're perceived as being not credible. Or the agricultural producers may have the perception that reaching out for care by a provider that's not familiar with agriculture, that that will be a waste of their valuable time. And let's face it, time in farming is of the essence and it's incredibly valuable. I think that another barrier to receiving care or kind of a challenge to receiving care is also the stigma, a potential stigma that's involved with accessing face to face mental health services. Let's face it, in a rural community, we all know the vehicles that other people drive. So if someone's truck is parked in front of a clinic, there's kind of an automatic loss of privacy and confidentiality just to due to environmental factors. I think another challenge in accessing mental health care is the financial costs involved. So No. One, it's the financial cost of paying for mental health care services if you go the private route, which typically you can get in sooner. There's the cost of traveling. We're an hour basically from the nearest mental health care provider. So that's automatically two hours out of your day that you're that you're traveling. But then also the duration of the appointment. And so when I talk about the financial cost, it's the cost of a loss of production or business while you are away receiving mental health care. So say in the livestock industry, if you are in the livestock birthing season and you happen to have been on a wait list to receive mental health care, the wait list was three or six months long. When your appointment arrives, you happen to be in high production season. So for us, that would be calving season. And with that comes well, if I leave during calving season and I have a cow who's got a problem giving birth, number one, I could lose the cow, I could lose the calf. So you've automatically like that's a huge financial cost while you're trying to receive mental health care and most agriculture producers, let's face it, we're going to prioritize getting the work done to hopefully get a paycheck as opposed to taking a chance to leave the farm to receive mental health care during high production seasons, I think that's a huge barrier to accessing mental health care for agriculture producers.
Kirk: And so you personally, how are you personally working to address those challenges?
Cynthia: Are you asking me as a farmer or as someone who works in the mental health care field.
Kirk: Both. I think both are pertinent.
Cynthia: Well, as a farmer, I have to be honest, I went through my own challenges with mental health because I experienced postpartum depression. And this was quite a long time ago. And back then there were not the resources that we even have now. There wasn't social media and isolation truly, truly was. Like when we were isolated, we really were isolated. You didn't just run to the city for the day or… so when it comes to overcoming mental health care challenges for myself, I find that really interesting, that question. And it makes me reflect on the fact that, yeah, I do need to prioritize my own health care, mental health care. And I think that social media provides a really great platform for seeking social support and social support is really important in the agriculture industry. There's also online courses and programs that are available, especially here in Saskatchewan. We're really fortunate. We have an amazing online therapy program through the online therapy unit at the University of Regina and that delivers cognitive behavioral therapy with therapists assistance. So it's basically what you would receive in face to face care, except it's through the Internet. You choose when you work on it. It's incredibly accessible and it's free, which is which is a huge right. As for addressing mental health challenges, as a health care provider, I started volunteering as a suicide intervention responder back in early twenty fifteen. And I did that because agricultural producers have faced incredible hardship and stressors that have really challenged mental health. And that's increasing, I find, as time progresses. And so I went back to university first. I did the suicide intervention response, which I've been doing that for six years now. And then I went back to university to do a master's degree in clinical psychology so that I could be an active play, an active role in being a solution to providing rural mental health care services. So I think that as time goes on, our rural services are increasing and they are improving, whether that's within the community or online accessibility.
Sara: You mentioned that you had experienced depression some years ago. Can you tell us about that? Cynthia: Well, I experienced postpartum depression and it came to a head during harvest, so I was trying to feed Harvest Crew, a newborn baby had an active three year old. And I reached out to my family doctor because that literally was the only person that I knew who could possibly help. And the solution or the suggestion really by the doctor was like, wow, you need some sleep, like you need some sleep. I'm going to put you in the hospital. Hopefully you can get like a week's worth of sleep and then you'll be great. And I was like, I think you're mentally ill even by suggesting that, because how do I with a newborn baby and a three year old during harvest, how do I get away? Like, I can't just take a vacation. It was an incredibly frustrating experience because the provider, the mental health care provider, had zero agricultural awareness. If we have a negative experience upon that first encounter, we don't reach out a second time. And we are a resourceful bunch. We are independent and self-reliant. And so quite often I hear and also based on my personal experiences, if we don't have a positive encounter that very first time, well, then we need to fix it ourselves and we will turn inwards to try and find a solution. And sometimes we don't have the knowledge or the education or the awareness to find that solution.
Sara: How is a rural mental health provider not aware of farmers conditions.
Cynthia: Contrary to popular belief, agricultural awareness or knowledge, it's not common sense. It's culturally learned. Right. So most of the providers that we have coming to rural locations are GPs. They're medical doctors who grew up in an urban setting, and they're coming to a rural environment. And just because you live rural does not mean that you live agricultural, rural. There's a difference. There's a really big difference between living in a rural town and living on a farm, living in agriculture. Very big difference in that lifestyle. So honestly, I think that if we have medical providers or mental health care providers who intend to work rural, there needs to be additional education there. In order for them to be effective, really.
Kirk: So much about mental health comes with a stigma. We think that being labelled as having mental health issues will follow us for life. Yet, we rarely talk about someone recovering from mental health and shedding that stigma. Can you share with us an anecdote of somebody who successfully overcame a mental health issue?
Cyntha: Well, I I first think that it's really important, Kirk, to address the point that you just made in that. I believe that there is so much self-stigma associated with mental health challenges, and I find that the self-stigma actually harms or hinders us more than the inaccessibility of mental health care services. Right. I don't know anybody who goes around and says, oh, that person had depression, like don't deal with them because they're too messed up or whatever. I don't really know if that is occurring. And if it is, I, I haven't really met anybody who's had to face those challenges. So I don't believe that we hang a sign on people and say they're mentally ill. I think that we've moved beyond that mentality. At least I really hope that we have, especially here in agriculture, when the stressors that we face, the adversity that we face… really take a toll on the mental health of agriculture producers. I mean, let's face it, the psychiatric disorders experienced by mental health producers, we experience them at a greater rate than the general population, which kind of goes to show the amount of stress and adversity that we face. But you know what? Mental health challenges, mental health is kind of on a continuum. I mean, everyone has really bad days. Everybody might have really bad weeks. But then on the other side of that pendulum, we can swing and we can have really great periods. So I hope that people have the recognition that mental health is not all sunshine and rainbows. That is really unrealistic. And we're setting ourselves up for failure and thinking, Oh, I need to be happy all the time. That's B.S. Excuse my language. But it really is it's unrealistic, setting yourself up for failures. So, mental health challenges can be overcome. I'm a living testament to that. And I can't speak to other people's experiences, but I can speak to my own. I did work on myself. I made myself a priority and I made my mental health a priority. So if I needed to have a break or I needed to get a full night's sleep, I communicated with my spouse about that. We had open conversations. And I think that by communicating our challenges, we actually can kind of remove ourselves from the challenge in order to find solutions and to find better ways to cope. So for anyone who is experiencing. Really big mental health challenges right now, I just want you to know that tomorrow is a brand new day. The sun always rises. And even though that sounds incredibly cliche, it's very true. And as farmers, we know that I mean, we're out there, the crack of dawn, you see it every day. So I really hope that people give themselves the opportunity to experience a new self, a new existence, and to kind of lift themselves out of whatever they're dealing with. As far as mental health challenges make yourself a priority.
Sara: What are the first steps to making yourself a priority?
Cynthia: In doing suicide intervention response. It's. To the point of being shocking how some people don't necessarily realize that they are experiencing difficulties, right, because perhaps that's being their way of operating for such a long time that that has become their normal, they may not even realize that they are experiencing mental health challenges. Right. And quite often in rural communities, you may have that neighbor who's like a grumpy jerk. Chances are that grumpy jerk is really dealing with some big mental health challenges, right? I don't think people are evil by nature. Right. Typically, it's a mental health thing. So no one step to making ourselves a priority is recognize that we that we would benefit from that. That we would benefit from having some time to ourselves, no, to take a look at your agricultural operation and recognize what the number one piece of equipment is that you couldn't live without on your farm operation. And this is something that I tell to producers all the time when I ask people what is the number one piece of machinery that you use on your farm? And quite often people will say, well, it's the tractor or the combine or the air seeder or whatever. And I say, well, could that operate without you? No, your crops don't feed themselves, your cattle don't feed themselves, you, that individual, the farmer is the number one piece of machinery on their farm. So if you would spend time fueling up your tractor in the morning or checking the air pressure in your tires or changing the oil, we'll do the same thing for yourself first before you head out for the day, eat a breakfast, drink some water, take a coffee and pack snacks to go with you. Those are all things that we completely take for granted. But it's impossible to handle the stresses of our everyday life if we are not properly fueled.
Kirk: Is there any other advice you would give your fellow producers?
Cynthia: One thing that I would like to encourage agriculture producers to do is if you reach out for help the first time and it's not beneficial. Please try again. Please try again. That first health care provider that you reached out to, they may not be equipped to help you. They may not. However, there are other people who are equipped. And I think that mental health in agriculture is adequately being recognized now. And I'm hoping that going forward we can develop one agency where we can help agriculture producers across the country. And hopefully that's coming. Hopefully we're on the horizon.
Sara: And what if someone is a witness to someone else's struggles? How do they help?
Cynthia: That's a great question. I think that for a lot of people, when they see someone struggling there is a lot of hesitation to approaching that person, right, because we don't want to anger people, we don't want to upset people and we don't want to lose whatever relationship we have with that person. However, I always identified with people that I would much rather have someone incredibly angry with me than not here at all because they suicided. So I encourage people that if you see someone changing, like if their behavior has changed, if their physical appearance has changed, if they weren't a drinker before and suddenly, you know, they've got some beer in their tractor while they're out in the field, and that's not their usual behavior, then it's OK to check in and say, hey, how are you? And ask that question twice, how are you really and then be prepared to listen and just like close your mouth, you don't need to offer solutions. All you need to do is listen. And I think that a lot of people will find incredible support even from having the opportunity to just say, yeah, maybe I'm not OK right now and someone listening that they don't need someone else's solutions for them.
Kirk: And we all have to pay attention to our mental health. We are just at the tail end of a pandemic. It has taken its toll on everyone.
Sara: If you or someone you knows is in need of support, there are excellent services that are specific to the needs of people working in the agriculture sector.
Kirk: One of the best places to start is by going to the website for the organization called, Do More Agriculture. It's a non-profit organization that champions mental wellbeing of all Canadian producers. They have a comprehensive list of mental health services and resources in all provinces, and their site is in both English and French. Their web site is simply domore.ag – d – o – m – o – r – e – dot – a – g.
Sara: And if you haven't already listened to them, we have done a couple of other episodes on mental health in farming.
Kirk: Including a new one with Marcel Groleau, VP of the Union of Agricultural Producers in Quebec. Very insightful.
Sara: So, until the next episode, you know what to do.
Kirk: Try something new. A new idea. A new technique. A new food Canadian product. Give it a try.
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