Editors Note: This article comes to us from the winter 2003 newsletter by the Canadian Women’s Health Network, a government agency that has since been shutdown due to budget constraints. While it looks at women in Canada, we’re certain that both men and women across the globe can identify with the stress of keeping farms together. Wendee Kubik has continued to do research in this area and we’ll be sharing more information in future articles.
In an age when we are “stressed-out,” monitor our daily “stress levels,” and talk endlessly about our need to “de-stress,” the connection between stress and health is one that most of us are fairly familiar with. Yet as Wendee Kubik found in her research about farm women’s health, not all stress is created equally.
Wendee Kubik, a PhD Candidate in Canadian Plains Studies at the University of Regina, first became interested in farm stress during a part-time job conducting phone surveys with farmers. “When I would ask if there was anything else they would like to tell me about short line railroads, they would just start venting about the stress of farming. That was when I started to realize how difficult farming can be,” Kubik recalls.
Kubik eventually turned her observation into a major research project on farm stress, and soon realized that the women were “holding the farms together.” She discovered that women’s roles within the farm economy had changed tremendously in response to the farm crisis. In addition to their traditional responsibilities for the home, children and community, women must also do paid work off of the farm, as well as help with the farm labour to sustain their family farms.
Kubik began to wonder about the impact of this kind of workload on the women’s health, yet found that little research had been completed on farm women generally. So she set out to find the answers to her questions. In the course of Kubik’s research she designed a written questionnaire that was completed by 717 farm women from rural municipalities across Saskatchewan, and she conducted 20 in-person interviews with randomly selected farm women. What Kubik found was an overall “sense of hopelessness and total frustration.”
The farm women in Kubik’s sample reported very high levels of stress, with many women regularly experiencing physical symptoms associated with stress: 66% of her respondents reported sleep disturbances, 53% reported an inability to concentrate, 57% reported having trouble relaxing and feeling anxious, sad or depressed, and 48% reported irritability and/or short temper.
Kubik contrasted the data from her research with statistics from the National Population Health Survey of Canadians. Eighty-three percent of the farm women in Kubik’s sample had seen their family doctor in the last 12 months, versus 19% of the total Canadian population, supporting the idea that farm women are experiencing a greater degree of health problems. In addition, 49% of the farm women rated themselves as being “overweight” compared to 23% in the Canadian population, while an alarming 45% of the farm women reported long term health problems.
Even though the women identified economics as the main cause of farm stress, they held themselves responsible for their family’s stress. “Because women are socialized to take responsibility for their family’s health, they see it as their job to make things right in the family, whether it is within their control or not,” Kubik found.
The consequences of such high levels of stress and poor health for rural communities are disturbing. The women told Kubik that they see their communities dwindling as people leave their family farms, and divorces, suicides and illnesses become more and more frequent. When Kubik asked what they saw for the future of farming, most of them replied, “corporate farms.”
The women interviewed made many recommendations for improving their situation. Firstly, they identified a need for inclusive health facilities that incorporate health care services, day care, employment skills and mental health services into one location. “The women said they really needed counseling, but there is still such a strong stigma about using mental health services that people are fearful of their cars being identified when they are parked outside a mental health clinic,” Kubik explains.
Secondly, the women identified unequal access to health services across the province, and an overall lack of doctors. They recommended an increase in nurse practitioners as a possible solution to the need for more care in more communities.
The women interviewed also suggested an increase in mobile services. Kubik explained that there is a Mobile Breast Screening Service that travels through rural Saskatchewan on a yearly basis. Generally it is sponsored by a community group and promoted as a community event coinciding with quieter times in the farming cycle. Kubik reports that this program has been very successful, and the women identified this as a model that works well for them and increased access to critical health services.
A fourth recommendation that Kubik herself offers is for the Canadian consumer to value the family farm. “Government help for farmers can only accomplish so much. Unless Canadians want all our food to come from corporate farms, the ideology that food should be so cheap has to change. If we want these families to survive, we have to support these farms.”
Kubik’s report to Health Canada, entitled Women’s Diverse Roles in the Farm Economy and the Consequences for their Health, Well-being and Quality of Life, can be found online at: http://www.uregina.ca/campion/news/pdf/Farm%20Women.PDF
 Federal, Provincial and Territorial Advisory Committee on Population Health (1999). Statistical Report on the Health of Canadians. Ottawa: Health Canada.