Kasara Cooper was raised on a farm in Central Alberta that her parents built from the ground up.
It was there that her father, Roger Van Hecke, who loved farming, trapping and gardening, raised beef and “took much pleasure in God’s gift of nature.”
So Cooper was completely dumbfounded when, on the sunny and windy day of July 12, 2020, she learned he had died by suicide.
“Anything I could’ve done, couldn’t have done anything to help him,” she says, adding that he never wanted to acknowledge his needs or accept the support she offered.
For their family, she says, “you’re not only grieving that they’ve passed, you’re grieving how they passed.” It’s a type of grief Cooper says nothing can heal.
Cooper, who is now a retired nurse and lives on 41-acres where she and her husband farm cattle, pigs and hens, hopes this never happens to another family.
“It’s absolutely heavy, absolutely horrifying,” she says. “He was a strong man until he could no longer be strong anymore.”
Cooper’s father is not alone.
As a result of poor harvests, livestock feed shortages and extreme weather, Alberta farmers face chronic stress. But, they do not have access to round-the-clock mental health supports they need, something that Saskatchewan farmers benefit from. Rural Municipalities of Alberta (RMA) and others say that needs to change – a plea the government has so far ignored.
Extreme weather causes poor harvests
Alberta farmers have always had to adapt to unpredictable weather, but in the past few years, they have faced extreme conditions.
Since 2016, the province has seen yearly patterns of summer drought resulting in withered crops, followed by early precipitation causing wet, poor-quality harvests and livestock feed shortages.
Last year in 2020 marked the fourth year of extreme drought in some regions of Alberta and excessive moisture in others.
This year, Alberta Agriculture and Forestry reports that producers will be looking for winter snows in parts of all regions to replenish the soil moisture in preparation for spring planting.
Because farming is a weather-dependent occupation, these challenges will only get worse as climate change makes environmental conditions more extreme.
Cooper says the result of past poor harvests is that finances are tightening in her community. Every fall she wonders “who’s going under” if they weren’t able to get their crops off or pay the loan.
Joe Blakeman, the reeve for Lac Ste. Anne County, just north of Edmonton, has seen the economic impacts firsthand. He says his constituents have had to hay dead grain and contend with cows that had water “up to their bellies” in many areas of the pastures.
Blakeman says the stress builds when farmers don’t earn anything from their ruined crops and they have to borrow money from next year’s budget just to buy livestock feed.
He adds that during these times, “nobody around has got [hay] so the price goes up.”
As a result, he says, they had to declare an agricultural state of emergency for two years in a row.
The conditions that led to those emergencies have had major mental health consequences for farmers.
A particular kind of stress
Bronwynne Wilton, the lead consultant of the study Exploring the Connection between Mental Health and Farm Management, says, “Farmers endure stressors like other working professionals, but often face additional stress due to long working hours, reliance on variable weather patterns, isolated work conditions, and challenges with separating work life from home life.”
Along with this, they face isolation and are tied to their work seven days a week.
Aren Skogstad, the agricultural services manager for Lac Ste. Anne County agrees that isolation can be hard on farmers’ mental health.“You live where you work, and you never have the opportunity to leave.”
Paul McLauchlin, the president of the RMA, says, “all it takes is another hailstorm or poor crop” for farmers to find themselves struggling to go on.
“You’ve got people that are getting to be at the end of their rope and everyone’s tired.”
As an example, Lac Ste. Anne County Coun., Ross Bohnet recalls a moment with a grain farmer who almost reached a breaking point.
The farmer told Bohnet, “I was up closing the lids on my bin. And I thought, ‘You know, if I could just fall off here right now, it would be all done.”
Jeannette Andrashewski has been farming for 30 years and has also seen how her community has struggled with these stressors.
One year during a very wet spring, her family had a farmer come to buy seed and she says, “he hung his head in his hands over the end of his truck. And he said, ‘I don’t know how much more I can do this. This is exhausting struggling to plant seeds into mud.’”
But that man wasn’t alone in his struggles. Andrashewski says her community lost three farmers to suicide during one fall season.
When Briana Hagen, a researcher at the University of Guelph, began looking into mental health in the agriculture industry, she was shocked to hear stories similar to Andrashewski’s.
What’s more, five years ago when Hagen and her colleague Andria Jones-Bitton were searching for data surrounding these issues, there was none.
This led them to launch a survey for the province of Ontario to gather baseline data which turned into a national survey that gathered responses from over 1,100 farmers.
According to their study from 2016, they found that “roughly 45 per cent had high levels of stress, and 35 per cent met the criteria for depression — numbers that are much higher than the general population.” They also discovered farmers are “less likely than non-farmers to seek help for their mental health.”
They also found resilience among farmers is considerably lower than the overall population.
Alberta farmers lack ag-specific, round-the-clock mental health support
Despite these findings, Cooper says farmers are not receiving adequate support.
“It makes it hard when there’s support for other things,” she says. “And then there’s no support for farmers.”
Still, since most of these lines aim to provide referrals to further treatment after assessment, they can be unhelpful for farmers who need help in critical moments.
That’s because, according to Sebastien Dutrisac, president of the Association of Alberta Agricultural Fieldmen (AAAF), farmers are living in remote, rural areas.
“They are in close-knit families, close-knit communities, and they are away from the big urban centres. So they’re isolated right from the get-go.”
COVID-19 has amplified this aspect of rural isolation, Dutrisac says.
McLauchlin, the RMA president, says rural interdependence and isolation both play a big role in farmers’ resistance to seek help.
“You don’t want to tell people what’s wrong — that you’re suffering in silence.”
“That to me is the scary part,” he continues. “You don’t see it coming.”
Likewise, farmer and host of the Rural Women Podcast, Katelyn Duban, says lots of producers live far from any major centre where therapy would be available.
“[Farmers] are not going to spend an hour driving to town, an hour sitting there,” and an hour driving home. “That three hours could make or break your year,” she says.
“If you can take that time while you’re running equipment, or when you’re running cattle, or whatever, just to talk on the phone to somebody, that might be just what saves somebody,” Duban adds.
McLauchlin says it would be beneficial to have that conversation with someone who is also a producer and “can speak the same language.”
Duban says, for those who aren’t comfortable discussing their mental health candidly, “they might not find value in speaking to somebody who doesn’t know anything about their industry.”
In the same way, Blakeman says, “If you’re gonna pull the trigger on yourself and you’ve got somebody to call, it’s nice to have somebody that actually understands what’s going on on the other end of the line.”
Similarly, Andrashewski says, “I would love to see an actual therapist designated for agriculture because it is so specific.”
This is why Skogstad also believes a 24-hour agriculture mental health phone line would be a beneficial resource. He says farmers probably feel more comfortable reaching out for help when they are by themselves.
“You’re out in the tractor, or you’re out with your cattle, and you know, something hits the wrong way for the last time kind of thing,” he says.
Saskatchewan farmers benefit from their Farm Stress Line
While Alberta farmers continue to push for a 24-hour agriculture-specific hotline, Saskatchewan farmers are fortunate to have the Farm Stress Line at their fingertips in desperate moments.
The helpline was established by the province’s agriculture ministry in 1992. In the same year, they began advertising it in provincial newspapers, detailing how it was designed to help farmers share their problems.
One of the government ads reads, “When you call the farm stress line, your contact will be a farmer… someone who appreciates what you and your family have been going through.”
A 1992 Star Phoenix article mentions those individuals would have had some training in counselling.
The manager of the Farm Stress Line in 1992, Lorne Dunsmore, told the Star Phoenix one of the aims of the helpline was to provide a resource farmers could access free of stigma.
“I think sometimes they are afraid that if they do use formal services, people will make some assumptions about them as human beings,” he said.
This is why the helpline was also created with no call display — a key element for those who wish to keep their experiences confidential.
Dunsmore said, “There are a few people in the province right now that are alive that wouldn’t be,” after seven months of the Farm Stress Line’s operation.
In 2012, the agriculture ministry contracted Mobile Crisis Services, a non-profit organization, to operate the helpline where they receive funding support through sponsors rather than the provincial government.
Currently, Saskatchewan residents have 24/7 access to the toll-free 1-800 number where they can access phone counselling, agriculture information and referral services for personal or production issues.
This is a resource Lesley Keller, co-Founder of Do More Ag, says is “so needed” for Saskatchewan farmers in crisis.
“I know the positive impact that the Farm Stress Line has had because my husband has called that stress line in the middle of a panic attack,” she says.
RMA advocates for more round-the-clock mental health supports
But Saskatchewan farmers are not the only producers who need immediate support during crises. That’s why some Alberta governments have been advocating for more agriculture-specific resources in their province.
In March 2019, the RMA proposed Resolution 2-19S, “Access to Agriculture-Specific Mental Health Resources.”
The resolution calls on the provincial government to implement Alberta’s own toll-free, 24/7 farm stress line.
According to Blakeman, Lac Ste. Anne County sponsored the resolution to help the idea of such a stress line gain political traction. He says all the credit should go to the AAAF as “those are the guys who brought it to our attention.”
For his part, Dutrisac says the RMA “actually brought it to us.” In turn, the AAAF oversaw the production and research of the resolution for the RMA with hopes of reaching as many MLAs and MPs as possible.
McLauchlin says he’s glad his members are advocating for the 24-hour helpline and are willing to discuss it openly, as he knows people within his agricultural community who have taken their lives.
“We should only be judged as a society by the people that we’ve failed,” he says, adding that we lose every time someone takes their life or when someone gets lost in other manifestations of mental health issues.
“It’s important for all of us to own the problem and to be open to finding solutions,” he says.
McLauchlin believes Resolution 2-19S could be the “path to success,” because it identifies the best way to combat farmers’ lack of access to mental health support — a 24/7 farm stress line.
“It’s something that we need to do so people know they’ve got hope, they’ve got a place they can go,” McLauchlin says.
This is why the RMA president says he is proud they are moving forward with the resolution by continuing to encourage conversation surrounding mental health in his community.
Alberta government yet to take action
Two years after the motion was passed, the Alberta government has yet to put in place the mental health helpline farmers have been asking for.
Skogstad says the government’s response to the resolution was “deemed unsatisfactory” by the Agricultural Service Boards and RMA in January 2020 because they only provided general mental health resources.
Speaking on behalf of the mental health and agriculture ministries, press secretary Kassandra Kitz told the Calgary Journal, “Alberta’s mental health system has sufficient capacity to support Albertans who are struggling, including farmers and their families.”
After a $100 million increase in 2019, the provincial government’s 2021 budget calls for $140 million to be used for mental health and addiction services.
However, their latest response to the RMA does not commit any funding nor facilitation for an agriculture-specific mental health helpline.
In fact, the agriculture ministry responded to the service board’s sister resolution E1-19 — Access to Agriculture Specific Mental Health Resources in 2019 saying, “At this time, there is no funding available for a mental health crisis hotline dedicated to agriculture.”
Dutrisac says existing fiscal restraints and a poor economy means it’s unclear whether or not the intent of the resolutions will be met by the government. He adds, “there’s a lot of demands and requests for financial assistance.”
“Because we believe this is a collective good, it should be paid for by the collective, by all of us,” he says.
Since the government has no plans in place for collective funding of an Alberta farm stress line, Dutrisac adds that producers, governments and associations alike will have to start thinking outside the box to find financial solutions.
He says, “When this is an issue of mutual concern, this is why we advocate, this is why we write resolutions,” to keep the conversation going.
McLauchlin also says it’s important to keep the issue of mental health on the table because it affected farmers before the COVID-19 pandemic, and will persist after infection rates die down for good.
Blakeman thinks the increased concern for mental well-being during the pandemic will help producers get the agriculture-specific support they need.
“Maybe we’ll actually get some ears to listen to us this time.”
Dutrisac says, “If we all work together, we can find solutions. We all recognize this is real. This is not a fantasy, it’s a real struggle and it’s going to have a serious impact.”