Mental health in veterinarians and farmers

First aid provides a quick response to a medical problem, perhaps a bandage or pain medication that can stabilize the patient until medical care can be accessed. “Mental health first aid” extends this idea by providing an assessment of possible mental health problems and a quick but helpful response that connects the person to further care.

Population medicine professor Andria Jones-Bitton recently worked with the Ontario Livestock and Poultry Council to modify Mental Health First Aid Canada’s program to offer mental health first aid training to veterinarians and those in agricultural support organizations.

“This was a pilot project for us, but the response was very good so we are tweaking it further to better meet the needs in agriculture and plan to offer it again,” she says.

Researchers have discovered that mental health problems are more prevalent in certain professions, and two with higher-than-average rates of depression and anxiety are veterinarians and farmers or agricultural producers.

Jones-Bitton and her colleagues have formed the Advancement of Wellness and Resilience in Research and Education (AWARE) to work on these issues. The team consists of Colleen Best, a postdoc in population medicine; Joanne Hewson, clinical studies professor; Peter Conlon, associate dean of students; and Deep Khosa, population medicine professor.

“Anecdotally, most people working in the field know producers dealing with significant stresses and many know someone who died by suicide,” says Jones-Bitton. She says farmers work long hours seven days a week, and many of the issues that influence their income are out of their control, including weather, disease outbreaks and changes in government regulations.

The mental health first aid training teaches participants to recognize the signs of common mental illnesses (for example, a loss of interest in things a person previously enjoyed may indicate depression), and how to then start a conversation. The training also covers identifying and responding to other mental health challenges. Jones-Bitton hopes that graduates of the training will use these skills to help producers and their colleagues.

Andria Jones-Bitton
Andria Jones-Bitton

Although studies on mental health problems among farmers are available from other countries, data does not exist for Canada, so Jones-Bitton is conducting a baseline survey of agricultural producers to determine what the issues are, how producers currently find help and support, what barriers they experience, and what additional resources could help them. The survey takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Veterinarians are also at a higher risk for mental health concerns. Over the summer, members of the AWARE team conducted an online survey of veterinarians in Ontario. The analysis of the data is not complete, but Jones-Bitton says the preliminary results “are quite alarming.” About one-third of veterinarians who responded to the survey had anxiety problems, and another third were borderline. About 10 per cent were depressed and another 15 per cent were borderline. The researchers continue to analyze this data to explore factors associated with mental health and resilience.

Protecting against the harmful effects of stress needs to begin in veterinary school, says Jones-Bitton. The AWARE team is working on a study with master’s student Monika Goetz to examine stress, resiliency and personality type among veterinary students. The Ontario Veterinary College also offers Wellness Wednesdays during lunch breaks, where guest speakers teach students about nutrition, finances, balanced lifestyles, mindfulness techniques and other topics.