Sport and farm demands can lead to mental health challenges
Last month I attended a workshop on producer, processor and family wellness hosted by the Centre for Organizational Governance in Agriculture. While the presentation focused on the agricultural industry, I found that much of the messaging in the presentation could also apply to athletes. In light of Bell Let’s Talk Day this week, I think it’s important to raise awareness, discuss and listen about mental health challenges people may deal with on a daily basis, such as burn out and depression.
In the presentation, registered clinical counsellor Kylie Bartel discusses the challenges farmers face and some ways issues can be addressed both at home and in clinic settings. Based in Chilliwack, Bartel offers coaching and counselling and most recently has partnered with AgSafe BC to help farmers and ranchers recover from the catastrophic flooding of November 2021.
Athletes and farmers alike face no shortage of stressors and demands. Studies show that 35% of farmers in Canada meet the classification for depression, 58% meet the classification for anxiety, 45% report high stress and farmers are 68% more susceptible to chronic stress than the general population. In sport, approximately 35% of elite athletes suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression and/or anxiety. And between 25% and 30% of college and university athletes report they have anxiety. The prevalence of mental health challenges amongst people in sport and agriculture makes it important for athletes, farmers, family members, friends and other industry professionals to be able to identify behavioural changes in their peers that could signal mental health challenges.
While farmers are susceptible to a wide array of mental health challenges, the most common diagnoses Bartel sees in her work are burn out and depression. While the two conditions may have some similar symptoms, distinct differences exist. With burnout, individuals may experience extreme emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced performance, varying emotions and preoccupation with work. Since burnout is often job- and situation- related, it can be resolved with changes in the work or home environment.
With depression, the main difference is that it interferes with everyday functionality. Other effects may include persistently low moods not tied to specific thoughts or events; loss of interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed; extreme exhaustion; sad, blunted or numb emotions; and feelings of hopelessness, suicidality and low self-esteem.
“The more we can all be a little more aware of these symptoms, the more normal it can be to talk about them,” Bartel says.
Charge your batteries
When discussing the balance of energy levels and job and life commitments, Bartel uses a phone battery as an analogy. When you are spending more energy than you are replenishing, your batteries will run low. In this two-part equation involving energy in and energy out, producers can either try to increase their capacity for demands by taking in more energy or reducing energy expenditure by lowering daily demands.
“Is there a way that we can reduce the things you have to do? Are there ways we can have more boundaries? Are there ways that we can set up more structure in your world to reduce what’s being demanded of you?” Bartel asks.
During certain times of the year, such as planting or harvesting, tasks are time sensitive and need to get done. When times are busy and tasks cannot be removed from the to-do list, Bartel suggests expanding your capacity as best as you can in the moment and after the season is done, deliberately set time aside to rest and recharge. You plug in your phone when it’s low on charge and you, too, need to charge up when feeling low, Bartel says.
Prevention over reaction
While producers have a lot on their plates day to day, taking time to check in and be self-aware can pay dividends in the long run. “The earlier we can catch these things, typically the less time and resources it takes to correct them,” Bartel says. “So, a lot of times I’ll notice that … people will come to me when they’re at like an eight or nine or 10 out of 10 level of stress, burnout, or depression, and then it takes a lot more work to get them back to a level four, five or six.”
Indeed, getting help earlier can have people back on their feet sooner than holding out due to time constraints or fear of judgement. For example, if a producer seeks help when their stress level is at a six or seven out of 10, chances are it won’t take as much time and energy to bring them back down to a place of less suffering, Bartel says. “This is where like the quote, an ounce of prevention, or catching things early, can be worth 10 doses of the cure,” she says.
This prevention can come in many different forms. Some of these measures, which Bartel refers to as “home remedies,” can include connecting with people in your inner circle, good sleep hygiene, proper nutrition, self-soothing skills and positive self talk.
Talk to someone you trust
Indeed, a family member or friend who you trust can help you deal with challenging times.
“It doesn’t have to be a professional necessarily. Just somebody who will listen,” AgSafe BC’s executive director Wendy Bennett says at the workshop. “And not try to fix it, but just allow you to express how you’re feeling and truly listen and be there.”
“Initially what people need a lot of times is to just feel seen, feel heard, to feel understood. That actually reduces a lot of the suffering right off the bat,” she says.
Sleep is of utmost importance
In addition, sleep is intricately tied with mental and physical wellbeing. While the optimal duration of shut eye depends on the individual, seven to nine hours is the general recommended amount of sleep for adults.
“When we’re sleeping, typically our physical repair happens in the first part of our sleep. And our psychological repair happens later on in our sleep,” Bartel says. “And so, for those of us who are getting shorter sleeps and aren’t getting that full seven to eight hours of sleep, that’s actually going to [impact] your psychological and mental health.”
Integrating a wind down routine into your evenings can help you better prepare for a restful sleep, as does avoiding caffeine, alcohol and nicotine consumption between 10 and 12 hours before bedtime.
While farm equipment doesn’t need sleep, machines and humans alike do need regular maintenance to function optimally. “We have to put fuel in our vehicles to keep them running and they also need oil changes from time to time and you know that if you don’t do those things, especially with diesel engines, [if you] actually run it all the way to empty, that’s going to have some even more expensive consequences down the road,” Bartel says.
“It’s not weak to take time for those types of things. It’s actually helping you be more effective in the long run.” Bartel reminds producers that “self care needs to be a priority; it’s not a luxury.”
What is your outlook?
Mindset and self-talk can play major roles in one’s outlook on life and are effective strategies for protecting your mental health.
Bartel defines two types of motivation: push and pull. Pull motivators are connected to phrases such as, “I want to …,” “I like to …,” “I get to …”. They are intrinsic motivators that correspond to a value. On the other hand, push motivators are associated with inner self-talk that has more of a negative connotation: “I must …,” “I have to …,” “I should …”. They are extrinsic motivators that correspond to a drive, Bartel says.
“When we study motivation with humans, we often notice that people who are entirely driven in life by I have to, I must, I should, … that’s actually the most fertile soil for things like anxiety, depression, and mental health struggles to grow,” she adds. “It’s almost like life is happening to me.”
While pull motivators are tied to our personal values and wanting to achieve something.
“The more we’re aligned with our values, typically the more we see people thrive, the more we see enjoyment in life,” Bartel says. By finding what Bartel calls “Your greater yes,” people are better able to cultivate resilience and navigate adverse situations.
The Do More Agriculture Foundation – https://www.domore.ag/
AgSafe BC – https://agsafebc.ca/
Cognito – https://www.getcognito.ca/
Heretohelp – https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/
Anxiety Canada – https://www.anxietycanada.com/
Game Plan – https://www.mygameplan.ca/resources/health