More BC farmers reaching out for mental health support since floods

The province’s Mental Health Support Line is reporting a 15 to 20 percent increase in calls since the catastrophic floods in November and a manager with the service says hard-hit farmers are making up the bulk of those new calls.

Asha Croggon, interim manager of the Provincial Crisis Lines Network, says about 75 percent of the additional calls since the floods have been from farmers.

“Farmers are often stoic people that are the everyday heroes that have been keeping us fed… they can be under tremendous pressure, some of them have literally seen an entire years’ worth of income float away with the floods,” Croggon said.

Historic rainfall caused catastrophic floods in the Fraser Valley that killed thousands of animals, destroyed critical infrastructure, and forced thousands to flee their homes. The president of the BC Agriculture Council estimated damage from the floods could cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars, and some farms could take up to a year to resume operations.

“The impact is not simply financial… there’s also an additional emotional impact,” Croggon said.

Croggon said while some calls are from people looking for information, funding, and other immediate help, many farmers are reaching out for emotional support.

The provincewide mental health support line at 310-6789 provides BC residents with emotional support by phone.

“Often when a crisis first arises our innate coping strategy will kick in, but sometimes it’s afterwards when things appear to have been sorted out when the emotion can arise,” she said.

Members of the Canadian Forces arrive by front-end loader to help move some 30,000 chickens at a chicken farm in Abbotsford, BC, on November 20, 2021. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jonathan Hayward)

The increase in calls since the November floods comes on top of an already doubled call volume at the support line since the beginning of the pandemic, Croggon said.

Kylie Bartel, a Fraser Valley-based clinical counselor who specializes in advising farmers, has also noticed an increase in demand for her services since the flooding. However, she said the number of people reaching out for help has not been proportional to the number of people impacted by flooding.

“Farmers and ranchers work harder than just about anyone else I know,” said Bartel. “Farmers are really good at buckling together and doing what needs to be done in the short term.”

She said if emotions are not processed in the short term, it can cause adverse health effects that can affect farmers in the long term, such as sleeping disorders and digestion issues.

“We can be more efficient in the long run if we turn toward what’s present right now … and maybe grieve what’s present.”

Harmandeep Kaur stands at her family’s waterlogged blueberry farm in the Sumas Prairie in Abbotsford, BC, on Nov. 24, 2021 after floodwaters began to recede. (Ben Nelms / CBC)

Harmandeep Kaur, who owns a blueberry farm in Sumas Prairie with her husband, said the flooding has taken a mental toll on her family.

“You see everything that you have put your savings into go underwater,” she said.

Kaur and her husband took over their blueberry farm from her husband’s parents earlier this year. Shortly after the farm became theirs, they were hit by the heat dome, then the November floods, and now the extreme cold. She said it’s been hard to stay positive.

Kaur said their blueberry bushes – which had been cultivated for 14 years – were underwater for over nine days during the floods, and are now sitting in ice. She is unsure if they will make it through the winter. Kaur said they also lost expensive farming equipment that they recently put all of their savings into buying.

“We know we’re losing a big chunk of our mental stability … we haven’t been able to sit down and actually quantify the amount of trauma or loss to be able to understand what’s going on,” Kaur said.

Kaur said her four-year-old daughter was traumatized by the stress of watching the flooding and then waiting to be rescued from their home.

Her parents took her to a few days of animal therapy, after which she started feeling better, her mother said.

Kaur said she has not reached out for any mental health support for herself.

“It’s hard to understand when to seek help.”

More boots on the ground

Dave Martens, a poultry farmer in Sumas Prairie who lost 40,000 chickens in the flood, said being away from his family home for Christmas has been tough, but he has found comfort in his community.

“We need friends to come alongside and stand with us during the dark times… we need to laugh at things,” Martens said.

Martens said he and many other farmers are too busy keeping up with their duties to call a crisis line.

“We’re trying to care for our animals, we’re trying to keep our equipment from freezing up, we’re trying to feed a hungry nation, so we’re busy doing farm stuff,” Martens said.

He said it would be helpful for the government to provide more boots-on-the-ground resources for farmers.

“Farmers are used to sucking it up, we get things done. If mental health services really want to help us, the best thing they can do is get out of the office and come and meet with farmers.”

If you are having a mental health crisis, you can contact the BC mental health support line at 310-6789. No area code is needed.

Call 1-800-784-2433 if you are experiencing thoughts of suicide.

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