A new counselling service that caters to the mental well-being of farmers and their families has made its debut in Manitoba.
The Manitoba Farmer Wellness program opened its doors March 1, joining several crisis hotlines and helplines available to producers.
The program is the first of its kind, however, offering a free, one-on-one, long-term counselling service that is operated by former farmers and people with a background in agriculture.
“This program is one step further,” said Gerry Friesen, co-founder and CAO of the program. “People that are experiencing overwhelming stress or experiencing any type of mental illness can get some longer-term counselling.”
The program kicked off just weeks before producers across the province prepared for their annual seeding process. At the time, no one knew they would be stuck indoors, weeks behind schedule, while the province endured one of its wettest springs on record.
The sodden start to the year ironically followed a summer that plagued farmers with drought, leaving stress levels high in many cases while they endured unfavourable conditions.
Friesen can relate to what many farmers are feeling.
He grew up on a hog and turkey farm before taking it over with his brother in 1983.
Nearing the end of his tenure with the farm, in 2004 he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression after his stress snowballed.
“Stress is huge,” he said. “As I, and many others have experienced, if you don’t take care of stress, there’s a great potential for you to slip into anxiety or depression, and that can lead to a whole host of other issues.”
Friesen received a call in January 2021 from his eventual co-founder and now Farmer Wellness counsellor Kim Moffat, who had done some preliminary research about farmers’ mental health.
She asked the former producer to follow through on the idea of a counselling service for farmers, something Friesen said has been discussed in the community for a decade but has never seemed to gain traction due to a lack of resources.
One of the resources Moffat showed him was a survey conducted by Dr. Andria Jones-Britton in 2015. The study analyzed more than 1,100 responses from farmers across Canada and concluded 45 per cent of respondents had high stress.
Another 58 per cent were classified with varying levels of anxiety, and 35 per cent with depression, according to the study.
Telling of the gap that needed to be filled, 40 per cent of respondents said they’d feel uneasy getting professional help “because of what people might think.”
Friesen agreed to start the program under the condition Moffat would join him.
The duo got to work and by late October, they were ready to get things off the ground. The pair began hiring counsellors, fundraising and promoting the business to news outlets, as they targeted an early spring opening.
The first four donations the group received were from different producers across the province.
“That speaks loudly to the fact there are farmers out there who saw the importance of this program,” Friesen said.
While the duo struggled with deciding how to structure the business model, Friesen knew he wanted it to stand on two pillars: flexible scheduling to accommodate growers’ unpredictable agendas, and easy booking.
He has stood by that. Prospective clients can quickly schedule a time to speak by calling one of the four available counsellors after clicking on “book an appointment.”
Like any business, Friesen said the start was slow, but has quickly garnered interest, as the program shifts their efforts to making sure farmers and their families are aware of their services.
“I’ve been completely overwhelmed by the support we’ve received,” he said.
Friesen couldn’t provide the number of clients Farmer Wellness has worked with to date.
He said he anticipates business to pick up in the fall when farmers start to wind down for the year.
Brenna Mahoney, general manager of Keystone Agricultural Producers, is on the program’s advisory council.
She said a barrier to farmers reaching out for help is that many people don’t know what they deal with each day.
“There’s not a lot of people who understand who they are, what they do, or how personal it is,” she said. “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.
“Farming and the agricultural industry is inherently stressful. When we saw this pilot project, we saw enormous value in it.”
Aside from competing in a global marketplace, farmers face supply-chain issues, public pressure and the challenges of a day-to-day business.
“We have a cultural shift going on in agriculture that is recognizing that mental wellness is part of running a successful business.”
Mahoney emphasized the importance of making sure there are Manitoba farmers today and tomorrow.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” Friesen said. “It’s OK to reach out for help. I know from my own personal experience that there’s hope and relief.”
In times of crisis, people in rural areas are encouraged to call the Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services line at 1-866-367-3276.
» Twitter: @jfreysam
Joshua Frey-Sam, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun