New mental health supports for farmers fill need, gap

·3 min read

Ontario’s largest agricultural group has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association to make mental health supports more accessible to the agriculture community, a move applauded by some Southwestern Ontario farmers.

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the mental health association’s Ontario division have joined forces to launch individual counselling, suicide prevention and mental health literacy training programs for farmers and their families.

“I’m pretty excited by that,” said Darryl Boersma, a father of three and a cash-crop farmer in the Mt. Brydges area, adding he’s struggled at times with his mental health during the years.

“As farmers,” he said, “we’re taught that we’re just supposed to put our head down and keep on working, and life will go on. To a certain degree, that is kind of true … but it’s not easy. So, the fact that there are volunteers and they’ve set up programs for farmers to access, I think that’s pretty awesome.”

Developed in partnership with LifeWorks, the first of three agriculture wellness Ontario programs is the farmer wellness initiative that offers farmers and their families access to free counselling around the clock, year-round.

The second program, the guardian network, is a community-based and volunteer-run suicide prevention program that provides strategies to help people identify signs of mental distress in their community.

The final service, In the Know, is a mental health literacy training program developed by researchers at the University of Guelph. Facilitated by mental health professionals with CMHA, the free four-hour workshop covers topics that include stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

“We don’t have as many opportunities or resources, in general, in rural Ontario to access mental health, and these programs help address that,” said Peggy Brekveld, a dairy farmer in northern Ontario and president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, an advocacy group representing more than 38,000 member farms.

“We also know that the culture (of farming) sometimes holds people back. We hope that raising the profile of this will help people to see there are other farmers that were in the same place just like you, and that they can reach out and there is help available,” she said.

Balancing work and family life, unpredictable weather, animal diseases and crop failures are a few of the pressures facing those in the agriculture community, Brekveld said. She cited a recent study that reported farmers’ mental health was worse than the general population and was compounded by the pandemic.

The study by the University of Guelph found that 76 per cent of the 1,200 Canadian farmers surveyed said they were experiencing moderate or high levels of stress.

Researchers also reported thoughts about suicide were twice as high among farmers compared to the general population, with about one in four saying their life was not worth living during the past 12 months.

Emery Huszka, who farms in Lambton County, is the Grain Farmers of Ontario board representative for his region and serves on the organization’s health and wellness committee. He said mental wellness has increasingly become a priority in the agriculture community during the last five years.

“All farm groups that I’ve seen have elevated it on their list of priorities,” he said. “We’re recognizing that there is a very valuable reward for bringing farmer wellness forward.”

Brekveld hopes the newly announced programs will reduce the stigma about mental health and help give farmers and their families the support they need.

“Even if only one or two people amongst all Ontario reached out and found a way through the challenging times, that would make me happy,” she said.

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press