New mental health supports for farmers meet the needs

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Ontario’s largest farm group has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association to make mental health supports more accessible to the farming community.

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The Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Ontario Division of the Mental Health Association have joined forces to launch individual counselling, suicide prevention and mental health training programs for farmers and their families .

Developed in partnership with LifeWorks, the first of Ontario’s three farm wellness programs is the Farmer Wellness Initiative that provides farmers and their families with access to free advice 24 hours a day, any the year.

The second program, the Guardian Network, is a community-based, volunteer-run suicide prevention program that offers 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 ACSM mental health professionals, the free four-hour workshop covers topics such as stress, depression, anxiety and addiction.

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“We don’t have as many opportunities or resources, in general, in rural Ontario to access mental health, and these programs are helping to address that,” said Peggy Brekveld, President of the ‘OFA, an advocacy group representing over 38,000 member farms.

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

Balancing work and family life, unpredictable weather, animal disease and crop failure are some of the pressures facing members of the farming community, Brekveld said. She cited a recent study that found the mental health of farmers was worse than that of the general population and has been made worse by the pandemic.

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A University of Guelph study found that 76% of 1,200 Canadian farmers surveyed reported experiencing moderate or high levels of stress.

The researchers also reported that suicidal thoughts were twice as high among farmers as in the general population, with about one in four saying their life was not worth living in the past 12 months.

Emery Huszka is a regional representative on the Grain Farmers of Ontario Board of Directors and sits on the organization’s Health and Wellness Committee. He said mental wellness has increasingly become a priority in the farming community over the past five years.

“Every farmer group I’ve seen has it high on their priority list,” he said. “We recognize that there is a very valuable reward in advancing farmer welfare.

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

“Even if just one or two people in all of Ontario reached out and found a way through the tough times, it would make me happy.”

Calvi Leon is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter based at the London Free Press. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.

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