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Farmers shed light on silent fight against mental illness

"I didn’t tell my friends – didn’t tell anybody. I just went inward. I hunkered down, and I just closed off to the world. My brain just went to mush. I couldn’t even make a decision to go see a doctor.”
Colin Millang 3
Colin Millang lost his hog farm near Camrose in 2005. He is sharing his story of struggling with depression and anxiety in the hope of helping other people. JENNIFER HENDERSON/St. Albert Gazette

This is the second part of Struggling for Hope, an eight-part special feature series examining the intersections between economic instability and mental health needs. Read our introduction to the series here.

Colin Millang’s life began crashing down around him in March 2005 when he lost his family farm.

On a Tuesday morning, Millang, then 46, heard a knock at his door on his hog farm near Camrose from a bailiff, who explained to him that the financial trouble he had been keeping secret had finally caught up with him.

Trucks drove onto his farm and began hauling away his 150 hogs and equipment. A week later, the bank foreclosed on his land. The following week, his utility company cut off the gas.

“I felt humiliated. I felt a deep sense of humiliation out of that whole unravelling of the farm,” Millang told Great West.

The hits kept coming. A few weeks later, Millang lost the part-time job he had been working in addition to farming, though he doesn’t blame his employer for cutting ties.

“Even though the employer felt bad about letting me go, I didn’t blame him, because at this point now, mentally and emotionally I was absolutely spent and I couldn’t do my job any more.

On the last day of March, his 20-year marriage came to an end.

Feelings of humiliation, guilt and shame flooded Millang, who came to the realization he had been battling undiagnosed depression long before he lost everything.

“I started to realize that I had been struggling and I had been dealing with depression for many, many, many years,” he said. That depression, coupled with anxiety and feelings of hopelessness, had led him to make poor decisions – leading in turn to more depression and anxiety.

As his farm had begun to descend into more and more financial trouble, Millang found himself hiding that from his wife and friends. At the same time, he began to lose his ability to make even the simplest decision, struggling even to decide what to eat for lunch.

“I got myself into such a deep hole that I didn’t even think that I should go see a doctor. I didn’t seek out a therapist. I didn’t even tell my wife what was going on at the farm. I didn’t tell my friends – didn’t tell anybody. I just went inward. I hunkered down, and I just closed off to the world. My brain just went to mush. I couldn’t even make a decision to go see a doctor,” he said.

As Millang quietly, unknowingly battled his mental health conditions, the hog industry in Canada took a turn for the worse. At the time, Japan’s hog industry had collapsed, and the global market had come down with it. Family hog farms in the U.S. were going under, and that wave of closures was coming to Canada. Smaller farms couldn’t stay afloat and were haemorrhaging money, but Millang thought his farm would be different.

“I didn’t want to believe it. The writing was on the wall,” Millang said.

Eventually, his farm succumbed as many others had done.

Getting help

Five years before Millang lost his farm, he remembers watching the Oprah Winfrey Show and wondering if he was depressed. An expert on the show said depression was defined as feeling sad and blue for more than eight weeks in a row, and while Millang was struggling, he didn’t feel like he met that description.

“I don’t feel sad and blue, so then I guess I’m not depressed,” he recalled.

The problem was that he actually was depressed – he just didn’t recognize it.

“It went undiagnosed and I didn’t do anything about it.”

After his farm went under and his life was completely upended by depression and anxiety, Millang decided to get professional help and start digging himself out of the hole that had opened up beneath him.

Now, he says if someone had asked him if he was feeling angry, engaging in risky behaviour or overindulging in alcohol, he might have identified more with the diagnosis of depression.

“What I have learned, for some men, our depression does not show up as feeling sad and blue,” he said.

Colin Millang 2Now a Lutheran pastor in Hanna, Alta., Millang has also joined forces with the Resource Centre for Suicide Prevention's rural and oil and gas support program called Tough Enough To Talk About It, where he travels across the province sharing his story of suffering in the hope of helping other people who find themselves in his position. JENNIFER HENDERSON/St. Albert Gazette
Millang’s story of anxiety and depression on the farm is not unique.

In Canada, the farming community sees an estimated 20 to 30 per cent more suicides than any other industry. A 2018 survey conducted by the University of Guelph showed that 45 per cent of Canadian farmers were classified as having high levels of stress; 58 per cent met the criteria for anxiety; 38 per cent had high levels of mental exhaustion; and 35 per cent met the criteria for depression.

Still, 40 per cent of Canadian farmers said they would feel uneasy seeking help.

Adelle Stewart, the executive director of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, said farmers face more challenges than the rest of the population.

“(Studies) are showing that farmers and primary producers experience stress, depression and anxiety at higher rates than the general population in Canada,” Stewart said.

One contributing factor to that is the unpredictability of their jobs.

“We need to be business planners, but we also have to be the most adaptable people on the planet,” Stewart explained.

Farmers and primary producers battle many factors outside their control, including the unpredictable weather that can destroy millions of dollars in crops planted in the spring. An early snow or wet fall can wash away all the hard work families pour into the ground all season long.

“There are farmers putting a million bucks into the soil and just (hoping) it rains, and then there are others saying, ‘I hope it doesn’t rain too much,’” Millang said.

Disease and pests can also come out of nowhere to wipe out crops and herds, like in 2003 when the beef industry dealt with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known more broadly as mad cow disease.

Unpredictable commodities markets also contributes to the stress of life on the farm, with factors like trade wars and pork demand in China sideswiping any plans local producers might have made at the beginning of the season.

The culture trap

While life on the farm is tough enough, the culture surrounding farming makes it harder for those who are suffering to get help.

“You do have to be tough in agriculture, but then there’s that expectation that you are that tough – that you chose this job,” Stewart said.

Millang, now a pastor, said it can be hard for men in our culture to express their emotions or seek help for problems – and that’s even more difficult in a farm setting.

“We as males are taught you do this life on your own. Don’t talk about your emotions and do these things on your own – pull up your bootstraps and have a stiff upper lip. You yourself is responsible for you, and now you bring in this farming mentality of being on your own,” Millang said.

The now-pastor says agriculture is very much an independent job, which is what many people love about it. But that individualism can be harmful when a tough year hits or when farmers need mental health support.

Stewart said producers are typically expected to either handle their problems alone or leave the industry.

“There is a lot of stigma, because nothing’s ever going to be perfect and (people say), ‘You chose this life, so why don’t you just get out of it?’” Stewart said.

Walking away from a family farm, though, isn’t that easy.

“When you're on a fifth-generation farm, there's pride and resiliency, and the world needs food,” Stewart said.

For Millang, part of the shame he felt from losing his farm was tied to losing all the hard work his parents had put into the business.

“I was so embarrassed. The family farm that my mom and dad gave their life to – and I so wanted to pass on to my children – died on my watch,” Millang said.

Mental illness not a ‘cut-and-dried issue’

Kasara Cooper knows the struggles of coping with mental health on the farm all too well. The 28-year-old lost her father, Roger Van Hecke, to his mental illness earlier this summer.

Her dad was 58 when he passed away.

Van Hecke was raised on a farm, and when he moved out, he started a farm of his own near Busby, Alta.

“He fought hard through his struggles, and is sorely missed since he lost his battle to mental illness earlier this summer,” Cooper said.

“He had an aptitude for it all and had a ridiculous amount of knowledge.”

She said he left a legacy behind of a hard work ethic and love for teaching others.

IMG_1325 cKasara Cooper holds a photo of her dad, Roger Van Hecke, who she lost to suicide in the summer. Van Hecke was a farmer in Busby, Alta. Cooper shared her father's story with Great West Newspapers for the Struggling for Hope series in order to help shed light on the mental health struggles of farmers in Alberta. JENNIFER HENDERSON/St. Albert Gazette

The daughter said there was no one factor that contributed to her dad’s mental health struggles, but there were many complex factors that contributed to his suffering.

“I don’t believe mental illness is a cut-and-dried issue. It’s complex and often times we need to view these types of illness as the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Cooper said.

Being in the agriculture industry can make mental health struggles harder, she added, because you never leave your work.

The to-do list is never ending and the work is never done. Farmers work literally sunup to sundown and even then beyond that, she explained. So if there is a problem on the farm or producers are feeling overwhelmed with work, they don’t have a way to escape.

“There's no break from it because it is your home,” Cooper said.

Cooper said even finding time to get mental health support can be hard and many farmers or producers feel like they don’t have time for self-care or to make appointments to get help. The nurse said sometimes the to-do list is so long it feels like it’s nearly impossible to focus on mental wellbeing, and farmers are left spending all their energy finishing a never-ending list of chores.

But even when farmers realize they need help and want to get help, finding support in a rural community can be challenging, especially if they don’t have benefits and must pay out-of-pocket. Additionally, mental health services in rural areas can be overwhelmed – especially in the midst of a public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic – and getting an appointment can be difficult. Instead, farmers may choose to try to cope on their own.

“(Mental health centres) are swamped, because people are overwhelmed and struggling with COVID,” Cooper said.

Isolated without services

Poor internet access in rural areas can deter people from accessing mental health services, Stewart says. Living hours away from help can be an additional barrier.

“If people have six days of rain, and on the sunny Thursday they either get to spray or see their counsellor, they are going to spray,” she said.

Organizations like the Do More Agriculture Foundation and the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Rural Mental Health Project are aiming to fill that gap in services for rural residents.

Jessica Turowski, Rural Mental Health project manager, said the new organization – which launched in 2017 – provides funding and training for rural communities to help initiate or expand a conversation around mental health.

“We are sort of building on the amazing things already happening in the community, and helping to expand and grow those to support mentally healthy communities,” Turowski said.

According to a 2014 gap analysis report on public mental health and addictions programs conducted by the University of Alberta, rural populations are underserved when it comes to mental health services.

The report said residents are often required to travel far to access help for mental health and addiction problems and “as a result they are less likely to obtain the services and supports they need.”

Specific gaps found in the report include a lack of programs targeting children and youth, limited access to forensic psychiatry services in rural areas, and minimal on-reserve services and supports.

According to the report, rural zones tended to cluster programs and services around large sub-regions within the zone, including programs and services that were offered in multiple satellite locations.

Turowski said no two rural communities are the same and some have already undertaken extensive work around mental health while others are just starting the conversation.

“The challenges that each of those communities (are) experiencing are a little bit different,” Turowski said.

She cited the ongoing cultural barriers and stigma about talking about mental health, which are even stronger in rural communities.

Another barrier in rural settings and small towns is a concern over privacy.

“The lack of anonymity in many communities can be a real barrier for people wanting to access certain services,” Turowski said.

“So often people will go to seek support services in a surrounding community or travel elsewhere, even if it's available in their community – and that is unique to rural communities.”

Cheryl Isert, a Smoky River, Alta., resident, joined forces with the Rural Mental Health Project to help bring support to her small northern community.

Isert struggled with her own mental health challenges after adopting a son with special needs in 2006 and struggling to find support for both her son and her family.

“I wanted to become involved in this so that I could help other families find the supports and so that they wouldn't have to go through it,” Isert, a pharmacy technician, said.

Living in a small community, Isert said they don’t always have access to services like therapy – sometimes, community members will drive an hour just to get to their appointments.

But despite the challenges facing rural residents, there are also mental health benefits to living in smaller communities, which Isert wants to help remind people of.

Isert said in her community, many people are very active and love being outdoors, which is good for mental health. Many people avidly hike, camp, ride their quads and hunt.

Another benefit, Isert said, is neighbours are very invested in their own community – many people have lived in the community for decades and are strongly invested in seeing it thrive.

And while for some people, knowing all their neighbours and feeling like there is no privacy when seeking mental health supports may feel like a road block to getting help, other people respond positively to having a community that knows them well and is willing to them.

Still, despite the perks, Isert said rural communities have been struggling long before the pandemic hit. She said she has watched people become lonelier as community events and programs shut down due to OVID-19; transportation services that ran in rural areas slowed down, including the bus in Smoky River. It has always been challenging to find work in rural communities, and COVID-19 made that even harder; Smoky River, a community dependent on the oil industry, was struggling before COVID-19 and took an extra hit when the pandemic landed in Alberta.

But that sense of community also persevered through the pandemic, with many people buying groceries for other, calling their neighbours to check in and making sure everyone in the community was taken care of.

“It was heartwarming – that's small town. You wouldn't see that in the big city.”

Life after the breakdown

After Millang’s life fell apart on the farm, it took him nearly a decade to rebuild his life and feel mentally well again. Now, he is determined to make sure his suffering was not in vain.

Millang decided to follow a decades-long dream to become a pastor, where he was stationed in the rural community of Hanna, Alta.

As a pastor for the Lutheran Church, he is able to draw on his personal experience to support rural community members who are navigating their own mental health struggles.

Millang also joined forces with the Resource Centre for Suicide Prevention’s rural and oil and gas support program called Tough Enough To Talk About It, where he travels across the province sharing his story of suffering in the hope of helping other people who find themselves in his position.

“There is so much silent suffering going on,” Millang said.

Millang now regularly sees a therapist to help prevent any catastrophic hits to his mental health and he is constantly learning and studying to understand his mind better.

He is hopeful the tide is turning and the stigma of talking about mental health struggles, especially for men, is lifting.

As a pastor, he supports men who come in and talk to him about their struggles with mental health and addiction. He is determined to use his story to help change the lives of those around him.

"Part of me telling my story is to help people to understand what depression can look like," Millang said.

Jennifer Henderson is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Great West Newspapers, covering rural Alberta issues.


If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can call Alberta's 24-hour mental health helpline 1-877-303-2642.

The addiction helpline can be reached at 1-866-332-2322 and is also available 24/7.

If you are having suicidal thoughts or you know someone who is, you can get help by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or by texting 45645.

Alberta's community and social services helpline can be reached by dialing 211. The 24-hour distress line is 780-482-4357 (HELP).

The rural distress line for northern Alberta is 1-800-232-7288.

If you or someone you know is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.

Jennifer Henderson

About the Author: Jennifer Henderson

Jennifer Henderson is the editor of the St. Albert Gazette and has been with Great West Media since 2015
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