Suicide Prevention Hotline reporting busy first month

Logo from the Wakaw Recorder website, wakawrecorder.ca.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Wakaw Recorder

The 988-helpline led by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), was rolled out across the country on Nov. 30, 2023.

Since its launch, the national suicide prevention hotline has been receiving approximately 1,000 calls and about 450 texts per day. Based on experience in the United States, demand was expected to be high immediately after the launch, so only time will tell if the usage rate will continue at this level or if it will level off to a lower rate.

Suicide mortality is recognized worldwide as a severe public health issue. It ranks among the leading causes of global deaths and affects millions of families, communities, and individuals every year.

According to Statistics Canada, 4,500 people in this country die by suicide every year. That is equivalent to 12 people taking their own lives every day. For every death by suicide, at least seven to 10 people either attempted suicide or grieved the loss of someone who took their own life.

Everyone who reaches out to 988 will be served, but it is imperative to remember that 988 is meant to keep someone safe at the moment. It is not meant to help navigate the mental health system.

In a study of published research papers, printed in March of 2022 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and titled “Inequalities of Suicide Mortality across Urban and Rural Areas: A Literature Review,” authors Judith Casant and Marco Helbich noted a disparity in the number of suicides between urban and rural populations worldwide. Only peer-reviewed journal papers were included in the study, with papers from countries around the world included, specifically from Canada, the United States, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, Great Britain, Finland, Belarus, South Korea, Ireland, and Taiwan.

This disparity between urban and rural was not just limited to high-income countries and while the overall number of studies done varied between high and low-income countries, the conclusions did not. It was apparent that in rural areas, men are at a higher risk of death by suicide than both their urban counterparts and women.

Because suicide is a preventable cause of death, Casant and Helbich concluded that more attention should be paid to “spatially targeted suicide prevention” rather than “one-size-fits-all” prevention policies. More attention should be paid to the design and implementation of suicide prevention programs targeting the factors that put rural people at risk such as poorer socioeconomic factors, easier access to firearms and poisons, limited access to health services, and social isolation. In general, the findings of the reviewed studies (a) tended to show higher suicide completion rates in rural areas vs. urban areas, (b) revealed that especially men seem to be affected by the rural factors, and (c) were inconclusive concerning an urban–rural pattern in suicide methods.

Andria Jones, a professor at the University of Guelph’s veterinary college, has been studying the mental health of farmers since 2016. Along with her student Rochelle Thompson and research associate Briana Hagen, she analyzed the responses of nearly 1,200 Canadian farmers who completed an online version of the Survey of Farmer Mental Health in Canada between February and May 2021. The survey results found one in four of the farmers surveyed reported their life was not worth living, wished they were dead or had thought of taking their own life over the previous 12 months. Their research also found that thoughts of suicide were twice as high among farmers than in the general population.

Until very recently, there was the expectation that farmers did not show weaknesses, and a mental health struggle, unfortunately, was, and in some circles still is, seen as a weakness.

A different analysis published in August 2023, in the journal Rural and Remote Health, reviewed fourteen studies conducted in India, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom, and from those studies, identified seven themes that contributed to farmer suicide. Lead author Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta, said those themes included such things as financial crisis, isolation, access to toxic pesticides and firearms, and an unpredictable environment. Farming is not like a regular job where at the end of the day, individuals quit work, go home, and do not think about work until the next day.

Farming is a lifestyle; it is a vocation. A farmer’s work is their life, their life is their work, and most farmers still feel the need to be strong, stoic, and self-reliant, which also prevents them from seeking out help when they need it, Purc-Stephenson said.

A 2019 report from the House of Commons Committee on Agriculture and Agri-food said support, while available in several forms such as telephone helplines, consultations with mental health and agricultural professionals, access to mental health care is still limited in rural areas, many health professionals are still not familiar with the unique nature of agriculture and the pressures that go along with it, and current efforts to help farmers are not consistent across the country.

Farmers carry the ‘weight of the world’ on their shoulders. They have endless stresses and pressures and are often navigating things not in their control. They can get into a routine of taking these stresses and pushing them down deep in the hope or belief that ignoring them will make them ‘go away.’ However, even if the mind does not acknowledge it, the body will.

Signs that you may be ‘storing too much’ include headaches, muscle pains or spasms, grinding teeth, poor sleep, upset stomach, exhaustion, and irritability to name but a few. “Remember if you’re not speaking it, you’re storing it, and that gets heavy,” states one blog post on the National Farmer Mental Health Alliance’s website.

Counseling can provide a confidential space to talk things out with someone who will actively listen. Some people find it easy to open up and ‘get everything off their chest’ especially if the person they are talking with is not directly involved in their day-to-day life, while others feel awkward. A professional counselor can help work through that and can also help identify ways to talk with others, assist with problem-solving and managing the stressors of farm life, and help to figure out what is needed to help improve one’s mental state.

The myths that are perpetuated in the world of agriculture come from a place of good intentions, but the old saying ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ holds in this instance as well as they can be damaging to a farmer’s mental health. One of these long-held myths is that the farm comes first. What farmers need to remember is that while the farm requires attention, so does the farmer. Making time to care for oneself and one’s relationships is critical to the success of the farm. Being a healthy farmer is one of the best ways to ensure that the farm can continue to thrive.

Another of those long-perpetuated myths is the one that ‘real farmers’ do not take days off. While it is true that as a farmer work and life intertwine, a day off or a weekend away never made anyone less of a farmer. People get concerned about how effective a doctor’s decision-making skills are when they work round-the-clock shifts or days on end without a break and the same should hold for farmers. Farming remains one of the most hazardous occupations, ranking fourth overall and the most dangerous occupation “in terms of absolute numbers of fatalities.” Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting (CAIR) released data showing that from 1990 to 2020, there were an average of 91 agriculture-related fatalities each year, and between 2006 and 2020 the average number of fatalities dropped to 70 per year. However, the number has declined primarily because the number of farmers dropped by half from 1990 to 2020. Farmers work in high-stress environments and depleting their resources, be they physical or mental, does not make anyone any safer.

The stresses of the drought Saskatchewan has experienced for the last few years and the upcoming growing season may be triggering some significant stress for farmers as they try to plan for the seasons ahead. National Farmer Mental Health Alliance and Farmer Wellness initiative therapists have lived agriculture experience and talking with someone who knows and understands the experiences of farming reduces the burden of having to explain what the farming experience is. This leads to a better connection between counselor and client and a better outcome.

Many counselors provide virtual (phone or video) appointments, which will allow farmers access from any private space where there is Wi-Fi or reception, including the home, a tractor, a parked car, the barn, or even while walking.

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