Campaign aims to end stigma for Nova Scotia farmers seeking mental health help

‘It’s very much a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of mentality,’ says David Newcombe

Erin Pottie · CBC News · Posted: May 11, 2021 6:00 AM AT | Last Updated: May 11

David Newcombe, president of Farm Safety Nova Scotia, seen on his family farm Port Williams, N.S. (David Newcombe)

For farmers, a great deal of stress and anxiety comes at certain times of the year. 

Some of the heaviest workloads are often packed into a few short weeks or even days, and adding to the challenge is something beyond their control.

“Farming is kind of unique in the sense that your job is very weather-dependent, so something that is completely out of your hands can have a huge impact on your income at the end of the day,” said David Newcombe, president of Farm Safety Nova Scotia.

The non-profit organization, which works with farms to keep farmers, their families and employees safe, recently launched its We Talk, We Grow campaign to shine a light on mental health issues in the farming industry.

The campaign’s website offers farmers and their families up to three hours of telephone counselling services at no cost, and links to mental health kits that contain items including stress balls, ear plugs and notebooks. 

The site also features a mental health action plan for the province’s farming community, which Farm Safety Nova Scotia said will be used to guide discussions with industry partners, elected officials, and representatives from all levels of government.   

Hesitancy to seek help

Newcombe said the campaign is a first step toward ending stigma in the industry. 

“It’s very much a pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of mentality,” he said. “People didn’t want to talk about their feelings or talk about their mental health, and if they did, there was hesitancy to seek help if they needed it.”

A 10th generation farmer, Newcombe’s ancestors trace their Nova Scotia roots back to 1761, when they left New England to sow seeds under provincial land grants.

He now raises laying hens, broilers and a dairy herd, along with their grain at his farm in Port Williams, N.S.

Struggle to find work-life balance

Newcombe said there are several reasons why stress levels are high among people in the farming industry.

“Like any job, there’s a lot of financial stress that can come,” he said. “A lot of people, too, they live on the farm and they might be the only ones working, or just their families, so they don’t have a lot of time to get away or take a break.

“And getting that work-personal life balance can be tricky.” 

A 2019 report from the federal standing committee on agriculture and agri-food found 45 per cent of farmers reported high stress levels.

Carolyn Van Den Heuvel, who works in outreach with the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture, said mental health has become a priority for a number of years.

“There were a few reports and studies done at the national level, and we had also been hearing locally about the challenges that farmers do face on a day-to-day basis and that further supports would be beneficial,” she said. 

‘An emotional toll’

Through its research, the non-profit found that farmers across the country face similar challenges and stressors, including finances, family disagreements, administrative burdens, high-risk tasks, long hours and a lack of sleep.

For Newcombe, stress and anxiety often stem from the harvest season. To help cope, he turns to people who are close to him, such as his wife.

“As my anxiety starts to build around those things, especially if I’ve been working long hours, I will start to feel burned out,” he said. 

“And that’s really where a lot of my issue come from. It starts taking an emotional toll on me then.”

Challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, including delays in processing and deliveries, have only added more strain on farming communities. 

“We knew that now was the time to really have the rubber hit the road and get something out there for people,” said Newcombe.