Issue 6: Mental Health

Overview

At some point, I felt it was important to touch on the touchy subject of mental health. The Farm Ecologist means more to me than helping folks understand better food choices and gut health, how to distinguish free-range from cage-free and organic from regenerative. It also means speaking to the underbelly of farming, the difficulties of managing, tending, healing and making a living off of land, and the internal conflicts that can both make farming difficult and make a farming lifestyle both healing and appealing in the first place. I started putting this together before George Floyd’s death and the (rightful, justified, long-due) eruption of protests and Black Lives Matter, anti-racist actions and resources, not just in the US but around the world. I have to admit I waffled for about a week — do I ditch everything I’d started on (I mean, save it for a later date) and focus entirely on race issues and the systemic injustices and setbacks that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) and LGBTQ folks face in farming and the food system? 
In lieu of devoting just one issue to providing those resources, though, I decided to focus an area of the website to sharing those resources. That page can be found here, and it will be updated and added to continuously as I learn, read, and understand more. As a White individual, this is the least that I can do and I continue to look for ways to be more engaged, active and practical in eliminating racial injustice, starting with my own actions, beliefs and perspectives. I am not berating or denigrating myself, nor looking for applause. Being raised in an inherently racist system means that I, too, am raised with, express and behave in ways that are inherently racially biased. Assuming and openly acknowledging that I, too, engage in racist behaviours as a result has been more helpful to me in unpacking and understanding racism than trying to defend myself as a non-racist White person. 

Books

I looked at my library and had to make some tough choices (focus, focus!) that spanned epigenetics, carbon farming, microbiota, Chinese medicine and mythology. I ended up with just two because I wanted to draw so many quotes from them.

From Nourishment, Fred Provenza (2019):

Nourishment was one of the first books in a long time that I bought and immediately read cover-to-cover. I’ve been following Dr. Provenza’s work in livestock nutrition and foraging for several years, as he integrates animal behaviour and ecology into the topic in ways that I feel are necessary to adequately understanding how animals in natural environments get what they need (and how we can translate that into better farm systems). His book takes that learning and puts it into a human context, asking if we, too, can use our innate physiological wisdom — based on our senses, genetics, and learning from others around us — to obtain a healthy diet, going far beyond resorting to “expert” advice and trying to stay on top of the latest nutritional research. 

If you’re thinking of picking up a copy for yourself, the only real downside to the book is that at times it reads a bit like a set of lecture or research notes turned into paragraph form; and the later chapters, expanding into the spiritual aspects of our relationships with food and the natural world, may be a little too meta for some. But I do think that this book is well worth a read for anyone wanting to better understand how we choose what we eat, why we eat what we do and how our bodies direct us to (or avert us from) various foods at different times. 

The most important subject discussed in my opinion is how an individual’s beliefs and traditions from throughout their life can affect their beliefs in natural resource management. . . . To get a person to question those things they have taken for granted all their life is an amazing thing.”

p. 314, quoting Utah State U student Christy Mack in his Managing Dynamic Ecological Systems class

“Transformation is an essential part of our experience of Earth, and the people we like the least are the ones who can help us to grow the most, spiritually. I’ve often wondered how many of the people we ‘despise’ come into our lives to teach us to love.— p. 315, in speaking to the role that a multi-year depressive episode played in transforming his life’s perspective, research and teaching methodology.

Provenza talks about how he came to study and then incorporate teachings from the primal religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and their relationships, then delve deeper into physics and connections between mystical traditions and this apparently hard-nosed branch of science. He continues later,

“[I] came to view the subject matter [of university courses] as a vehicle to relate the details of the material to life in the broadest sense – from personal relationships to the dynamism and uncertainty, wonders and mysteries of our moment on Earth. Teaching for me became both affective (in the spirit of love) and reflective (intellectual)” (p. 312). 

This very much reflects both the dissonance that I felt while studying ecology and its foundational subjects (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics) in the university system, and the connections that I made to mythologies and ancient traditions outside of my studies. This dissonance has been a significant contributor to my own struggles to integrate different aspects of my life between academia, e.g. theoretical research, and physical practice, e.g. farming, leading at times to depression and anxiety, at others to great inspiration, with the gap between the two being its own source of malcontent. This is one issue I hope to continue to address over time, exploring the interconnected roles of our food systems, agricultural and related practices, and physical skills in mediating both physical and mental health and wellness.  

A final insight from Fred, in response to a later diagnose of colon cancer (which he, fortunately, survived). I feel this is reflected in both the stress and despair and the great hope of the pandemic and quarantine:

“As the reality of cancer sank into my being, I felt a sense of relief. I’d have to stop working nonstop; no way could I keep going at this pace without a change of perspective and behavior. It was an amazing time – so many different feelings, but no dread at all, just excitement and a sense that this was omething that needed to happen to me. The experience was surreal. The proximity of death magnified and intensified the experience of life. In retrospect, cancer changed how I experienced life and prepared me for the upcoming decade of my life.” (p 316)

From My Name is Chellis & I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization, (1994) by Chellis Glendinning:

This was one of my favourite books from my late adolescence, gifted to me by a dear friend, organic gardener, homesteader and former Mennonite, Arlene Macdonald of Dunster, BC. This book had a profound impact on me as a young person in my view of the world and of the nature of trauma recovery and personal healing in relationship to the nature world and native cultures. In many ways I suspect my own experience may have been similar to others’ experience with the writings of Joseph Campbell (who I was introduced to much later in life). 

“In nature-based cultures, nearly everyone is an expert, or at least competent, in nearly every activity the people engage in. By contrast, few of us are competent, much less expert, at more than a few minor activities that contribute to the functioning of our society.” — p. 38

She quotes Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal, on the dogged persistence of Western linear thinking: “It is imperative that people understand the separate reality of Native peoples and the rest of society.” The thesis of her book, then, is centered on this separation between nature-based cultures in one category of human experience, and all others, from early agriculture to modern technology, in another. Speaking to the prevalence and pathology of codependence theory in psychology, Glendinning offers insights from the perspective of nature-based cultures:

“The emphasis in codependence therapy is rightly place don today’s epidemic of confusion concerning intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, but the problem is treated by encouraging the development of boundaries that encase the individual and thus defend him from connectedness. Rather than projecting hard demarcations and enclosures onto the natural world, nature-based people define social space by centers that they move through, depart from, revolve around, and return to – sacred sites, water holes, pathways, mountains, caves, gathering places. The nature-based psyche is likewise organized around a sense of centeredness, with the quality and size of each person’s field of existence expanding , intensifying, waning, retracting and overlapping according to situation and need. . . . From this perspective, relating to others presents an entirely different prospect. The task is not defined by boundary, knowing ‘where I end and the other begins.’ It is defined by center, knowing where I begin. The essential ingredient is not a fence or a wall; it is a constellation of energy emanating from one’s being, infusing one’s consciousness, ever changing and fluid.”— p. 28

“… [W]e each have the power to heal our personal wounds, to band together with our neighbors to protest a specific technological or political encroachment, to attempt to build a human-scale community. What we are powerless over is the dysfunctional process that is so tightly clamped over our every personal and political choice.”— p. 129

“In the nature-based world, the Earth is the source of all sustenance, the beginning and end of all life, the whole of which we are a part. The experience of living in a world dreamt by a sleeping lizard offers an undying sense of ease and connectedness. In such a world there is no need for soul-wrenching or existential torment, no urge to construct random meaning to the midst of a ‘senseless’ universe, no isolation or lack of place.” — p. 141

As I continued to glean pieces of wisdom from this wonderful book — mostly, thumbing through and finding highlights I’d made over 20 years ago that still resonate today, perhaps now more than ever — I find reflected in her writing so much of what the permaculture, agroecological, and regenerative movements are seeking to build: transformation of a profoundly unjust, technologically addicted society and global machine into a biologically centered one that replenishes rather than feeds upon itself.

Another book that travels alongside Glendinning’s book is Jerry Mander’s In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations (1991). What I find most remarkable about both these books is that I read them over 20 years ago and both are as relevant today as they were then. 

In The Public Space

Low-cost, online counselling is available through BetterHelp.com. I have used their services in the past and while it didn’t take the place of a trained, in-person counsellor or therapist, it was very helpful in bridging the gap when I was waiting several weeks for a scheduled appointment. After filling out a profile, you are assigned a therapist, but can change therapists at any time if you feel the person you ‘get’ isn’t the right fit. 

I have enrolled in several clinical-level mini courses online through the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM).  For relatively low cost (usually $100-200) they provide extensive, lifetime-access courses in video, audio, and written (transcript) format, with concise videos that make learning the material accessible in short bursts. While geared towards clinical practice, i.e. those working as therapists or coaches with clients, I have found the material to be very useful just for personal use. They also provide course credits for professional development if you are practicing in this field. Hint: if you’re not in a great rush, or just want to check out a course without dropping a lot of cash, sign up to their email updates — they regularly offer courses at 50% off ($97) for a short period of time before increasing the price to $197.

From the Scientific Literature Database

Note that I haven’t yet discovered the easy way to maintain the links to the original journal, so links still route to a lame page that says this citation was created in Google Docs using Zotero.

In part to solve this problem, I’m building my own database of regenerative agriculture literature to house papers from regen ag, agroecology, permaculture, diversified farming, and related fields. See www.regenagscience.org for the latest updates to that project.

I discovered a field called neuroecology while I was thinking about how to think about the intersection of neuroscience and our relationships with and in nature, whether constructed ecological spaces, e.g. farms, or more conventionally “pristine” ones, e.g. “wilderness”. I sort of mean deep ecology or ecopsychology, but am more interested in the neurobiological than the psychological aspects; and also, studies in non-human species. Neuroecology, defined as “the study of adaptation variation of cognition and the brain,” doesn’t capture it either, but it’s a start. (For longer and more nuanced definitions, see here (David Sherry’s abstract on ResearchGate) and here, a popular article on ScienceDaily). And it did lead me to some interesting papers, so I thought I’d share two of them here:

Riffell, J. A. (2011). The Neuroecology of a Pollinator’s Buffet: Olfactory Preferences and Learning in Insect Pollinators. Integrative and Comparative Biology, 51(5), 781–793. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icr094

Sherry, D. F. (2006). Neuroecology. Annual Review of Psychology, 57(1), 167–197. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070324

A lot of the papers in my database are related to gut microbiota and health, particularly mental health:

Bourassa, M. W., Alim, I., Bultman, S. J., & Ratan, R. R. (2016). Butyrate, neuroepigenetics and the gut microbiome: Can a high fiber diet improve brain health? Neuroscience Letters, 625, 56–63. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neulet.2016.02.009

Bowe, W. P., & Logan, A. C. (2011). Acne vulgaris, probiotics and the gut-brain-skin axis—Back to the future? Gut Pathogens, 3(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1186/1757-4749-3-1

Bruce-Keller, A. J., Salbaum, J. M., & Berthoud, H.-R. (2018). Harnessing Gut Microbes for Mental Health: Getting From Here to There. Biological Psychiatry, 83(3), 214–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.08.014

Galland, L. (2014). The Gut Microbiome and the Brain. Journal of Medicinal Food, 17(12), 1261–1272. https://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2014.7000

Jašarević, E., Morrison, K. E., & Bale, T. L. (2016). Sex differences in the gut microbiome–brain axis across the lifespan. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1688), 20150122. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2015.0122

Rao, S. S. C., Rehman, A., Yu, S., & Andino, N. M. de. (2018). Brain fogginess, gas and bloating: A link between SIBO, probiotics and metabolic acidosis. Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology, 9(6), 162. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41424-018-0030-7

Ridaura, V., & Belkaid, Y. (2015). Gut Microbiota: The Link to Your Second Brain. Cell, 161(2), 193–194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.03.033

Sandhu, K. V., Sherwin, E., Schellekens, H., Stanton, C., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2017). Feeding the microbiota-gut-brain axis: Diet, microbiome, and neuropsychiatry. Translational Research, 179, 223–244. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2016.10.002

Sherwin, E., Bordenstein, S. R., Quinn, J. L., Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2019). Microbiota and the social brain. Science, 366(6465). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar2016

Sudo, N. (2016). The Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and Gut Microbiota. In The Gut-Brain Axis (pp. 293–304). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-802304-4.00013-X

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) is a long-chain omega-3 fatty acid that makes up cellular membranes and supports nerve transmission of messages. Essential for brain development in utero and early childhood, it has also been linked to improved cardiovascular health and vision, and reduced inflammatory response. 

While our bodies produce it in small quantities, dietary sources are also required to obtain DHA in sufficient quantities. Best sources include cold-water fish, grass-fed meat, dairy, and pasture-raised eggs. It is also available in supplements, e.g. fish oil.

Bradbury, J. (2011). Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA): An Ancient Nutrient for the Modern Human Brain. Nutrients, 3(5), 529–554. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu3050529

I remember a comic once while completing my Masters that showed the various trajectories of folks in academia, starting from undergraduate through to tenure-track faculty. A major track for “off-loading” from graduate studies was into organic farming! Sadly, this epidemic of poor mental health is visible not just in graduate studies but throughout our educational system. 

Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3), 282–284. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.4089

However, it’s not just in academia, and escaping to organic farming doesn’t solve the problem:

Hagen, B. N. M., Albright, A., Sargeant, J., Winder, C. B., Harper, S. L., O’Sullivan, T. L., & Jones-Bitton, A. (2019). Research trends in farmers’ mental health: A scoping review of mental health outcomes and interventions among farming populations worldwide. PLoS ONE, 14(12). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225661

Some papers on clinical interventions and brain health or amelioration of depressive symptoms:

Lewis, J. E., Tiozzo, E., Melillo, A. B., Leonard, S., Chen, L., Mendez, A., Woolger, J. M., & Konefal, J. (2013). The effect of methylated vitamin B complex on depressive and anxiety symptoms and quality of life in adults with depression. ISRN Psychiatry, 2013, 621453. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/621453

Piscopo, D. M., Weible, A. P., Rothbart, M. K., Posner, M. I., & Niell, C. M. (2018). Changes in white matter in mice resulting from low-frequency brain stimulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(27), E6339–E6346. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1802160115

 

Podcasts

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Closing Remarks

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Author: Susan Cousineau

I’m an evolutionary ecologist who grows a little food and cultivates close friendships with farmers. My mission in life is to engage, inspire and educate on the integral relationships between food, ecology, health, and climate.

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