Psychology master’s student Cynthia Beck is addressing the mental well-being of farmers for her research project. (Photo by Trevor Hopkin)
“When I had my daughter 15 years ago, I experienced postpartum depression and realized I was all alone,” says Cynthia Beck, speaking from her farm south of Regina. “Mental-health services in rural Saskatchewan are not that accessible, and doctors don’t stay long before they move on. Plus, this was before the advent of social media, with very few resources and online connections.”
Even though Beck felt alone, she knew that many others were in the same situation.
As both a farmer and a graduate psychology student at the University of Regina, she intimately understands how devastating and deadly it can be for farmers who go through difficult and desperate times.
“I’ve done suicide intervention response for rural areas for many years. I am also part of a multi-generational farm. I understand the stressors farmers face from all angles, and it’s no surprise to me that agricultural producers and farmers are at a high risk of suicide – and that it’s now the number one occupation associated with suicide,” says Beck, who has spent many hours talking with farmers experiencing extreme mental duress and feelings of hopelessness.
“People working in the agricultural sector have unique stressors that most people simply don’t face.”
Beck says that the farmers she spoke to through her suicide intervention role opened up to her because they understood that she knew where they were coming from.
“People working in the agricultural sector have unique stressors that most people simply don’t face,” explains Beck. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in farming. Someone’s income can vanish because of one hail storm or drought. An early snowstorm in 2018 wiped out an entire year’s work right before there was supposed to be a paycheck.”
She’s seen farmers work hard for a year preparing the land, going into significant debt buying fertilizer, fixing and buying machinery. Then, the day before harvest, it’s gone.
“There’s never any guarantees in agriculture, and insurance does not cover one’s working hours,” says Beck.
Another factor that can lead to stress is larger inter-generational farms.
“You work and live with most of the same people day in and day out. The pandemic has now introduced other sectors to the idea of living and working in the same space, but it’s still different. There is no separation on the farm. No separation from family and work colleagues. And the weight of that on people’s mental health can take a toll. You work together, you go to bed together. Who do you vent to?”
That’s why Beck now wants to go beyond her work in suicide intervention to address mental well-being for farmers more broadly – a more holistic approach that she feels is lacking for this community.
“My research is tailoring an internet-delivered cognitive behaviour course to address the particular needs of farmers and those working in agricultural environments,” she says.
Her master’s project will become part of the University of Regina’s already-successful Online Therapy Unit, founded by U of R psychology professor Dr. Heather Hadjistavropoulos in 2010. While there are many courses offered through the unit, Beck’s course will modify an eight-week online course called the Wellbeing Course for Mental Health that’s designed for individuals experiencing mental-health difficulties, primarily depression and anxiety.
“By identifying key stressors, I’m looking at how to best serve the farming community.”
Within the Online Therapy Unit, therapists and graduate students like Beck are trained in internet-delivered cognitive behavioural therapy (ICBT), which helps users understand their behaviours and motivations so they can change maladaptive thinking to better cope with difficult situations.
“The fact that these mental-health resources are online increases their accessibility,” says Beck.
“Farmers work irregular hours – usually very early in the morning until there’s no light left to work – and many are worried about the stigma that’s still associated with mental-health issues, so online is the perfect way to access these free, safe, and private life-saving services.”
Beck says her course will be available to farmers and agricultural producers in Saskatchewan in June.
“This course will help to fill a gap in our agricultural sector and will hopefully save lives – providing the light at the end of what can be a rather dark and lonely tunnel."