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University of Alberta research to cultivate more ag mental health supports

November 23, 2022  By University of Alberta

Weather, disease outbreaks, rising operational costs: these are a few of the constant threats farmers face, putting them at a high risk for depression and stress. That’s why a University of Alberta professor intends to plant the seeds for more mental health support in the profession.

Though largely invisible, poor mental health in the agricultural community “has been an issue for a long time,” said Rebecca Purc-Stephenson, a psychology professor and research associate with the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus.

A national study from 2020 reported 35 per cent of farmers are experiencing depression, 57 per cent anxiety and 76 per cent moderate to high stress. A 2022 study reported nearly 25 per cent of Canadian farmers had suicidal thoughts in the previous year.


Many farmers hold a belief they have to be self-reliant, and rural isolation can make it impractical to seek support. Farms require constant attention and maintenance and farmers often feel health-care providers don’t understand agricultural pressures. The average age of an Alberta farmer is 57, so the research will also focus on succession plans, which can also bring stress. It requires letting go of a legacy and redefining who a farmer is once they no longer have a farm.

Through a series of studies over the next two years, Purc-Stephenson will work to uncover the biggest burdens on the mental health of farmers, veterinarians and other agricultural workers. The research is in collaboration with the Agriculture Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) and supported by $524,500 in funding by Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership.

“We’d really like to shift the culture of farming to recognize that mental health is an important part of running the farm, and that it’s OK for farmers to talk about it and seek help when they need it,” Purc-Stephenson said in a press release.

The studies will explore gaps and challenges in mental health services that were identified by farmers and mental health workers in a white paper that Purc-Stephenson co-wrote for ARECA.

Her research will also help build resources for AgKnow, a website that Albertan farmers and others in the agriculture industry can access for information and support. She aims to collect and share the stories of farmers who have experienced stress to help create a farmer peer support network.

Stress management tips for farmers

There are some basic things farmers can do to help manage stress, Purc-Stephenson noted.

Get some shut-eye: “There are times when farmers are busy and will find themselves working from morning to night, but ensuring that you’re getting seven to eight hours of sleep is really important for your body and brain,” she said, adding that research shows lack of sleep impairs alertness, judgment, co-ordination and reaction time.

Eat smart: Meals and snacks rich in carbohydrates and proteins provide both immediate and sustained fuel for the body. “Don’t rely on coffee to keep you going. It can be a great way to enjoy a break, but it won’t give the energy needed to work throughout the day.”

Take a break: “Taking some time away from work will help you do your best work,” Purc-Stephenson said. She advised pursuing an outside interest or hobby at least once a week – perhaps fishing, hunting, golfing or helping coach a youth sports team. Along with the much-needed mental break, “creativity and good problem-solving usually comes during these moments.”


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