FARM 23 - OFA taking a three-pronged approach to mental health
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
In recent years, the conversation around mental health in agriculture has continued to grow and grow, with individual farmers, farm organizations and others all looking to do their part to improve the mental health of farmers in Ontario.
Late last year, Ontario Federation of Agriculture President Peggy Brekveld spoke to CTV about a study conducted by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton at the University of Guelph. The study concluded that 76 per cent of farmers are still self-identifying as having a moderate to high stress level, much higher than the general population. Furthermore, the study also concluded that, in the previous 12 months, one in four farmers contemplated suicide.
That work helped lead to the creation of Agriculture Wellness Ontario, which includes a number of programs to help the mental health of farmers, including workshops, a suicide prevention program and an around-the-clock counselling phone line.
In 2021, The Citizen spoke with Brekveld about the mental health of farmers and the work being done to address it. Earlier this month, we connected again to see if things have improved and what further resources are now in place to help Ontario’s farmers maintain a healthy state of mind.
“Farmer mental health continues to be a concern and, in some cases, it has gotten worse,” Brekveld said in an e-mail to The Citizen. “Studies in 2021 compared to 2016 show that stress, anxiety and burnout levels are still much higher in farmers, with 76 per cent of farmers self-reporting moderate or high perceived stress. The statistics on suicide are most alarming. Farmers experience suicide ideation two times more than the general population and one in four Canadian farmers felt their life was not worth living, wished they were dead or thought of taking their own life in the last 12 months. The post-pandemic statistics show how much farmer mental health has been affected over the past few years.”
This alarming data has led, in part, to the development of the Farmer Wellness Initiative, which has been created thanks to an unprecedented partnership between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture.
“The Farmer Wellness Initiative was developed to provide access to free counselling services and tailored mental health support and resources to all Ontario farmers and their families, regardless of farm organization membership. With funding from the Canadian Agricultural Partnership program, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative, OFA partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) – Ontario Division and Telus Health (formerly LifeWorks) to develop and launch this initiative. It is the first step of a multi-year, province-wide program,” Brekveld said in an e-mail to The Citizen.
“Counselling is available for any issue, not just farm-related matters, including financial pressures; health concerns; depression; troubles with family, friends, partners or spouses; feelings of stress or burn-out; bullying, trauma, abuse and other issues requiring support. The confidential service, which is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in English and French, as well as up to 30 other languages, is provided by professional counsellors with specialized agricultural backgrounds and training.”
Brekveld, a Northern Ontario dairy farmer and president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), says the organization, and much of the world at large, is viewing mental health in a new way and that change is for the better.
In an interview with The Citizen, Brekveld said she’s personally had mental health struggles, as have members of her family, so she knows how important it is to recognize and make it a priority, especially during such a challenging time.
“I have experienced times that I’ve struggled and I’ve watched family members struggle,” Brekveld said.
With her experiences, Brekveld said the key was to talk about it, but she knows that can be hard for many people.
“It takes a lot of courage to acknowledge that something’s not right,” she said.
For some families, she said, the COVID-19 pandemic may not have changed day-to-day operations on the farm, with one family unit working together day in and day out. For others, however, it may have changed operations greatly. But one way the pandemic has affected the farm community across the board, she said, is that social gatherings had to cease, many of which are circled on a farm family’s calendar.
Farm shows, plowing matches, spring and fall fairs, church services or even community meals have always served as an opportunity for farmers to see other farmers and community members and those opportunities have been lost to the pandemic over the course of the past few years.
From a personal perspective, Brekveld said she has missed seeing her colleagues. Whether it’s members of her community or the OFA’s board of directors, not meeting face-to-face has been challenging and she misses it, but knows it’s the safe, right thing to do.
She, like many others, has seen the conversation change around mental health in recent years.
For too long, she said, people, especially those on the farm, would be told to “buck up” or “be strong” if they were feeling down. Now, however, more people know that there is far more to situations involving mental health and both the issues and the solutions are very complicated.
She says that farmers and the greater farming community need to think about mental health as it does physical health, realizing there is no difference between the two.
“In the same way that farming can take a toll on our bodies, it can also take a toll on our mental health. We want to ensure that farmers are equipped to take care of both. Providing farm families across Ontario with free counselling services and helping connect farmers with tailored support and resources is a greatly welcomed service in rural Ontario. It is important we keep talking about mental health. If we keep talking about it and increasing our understanding of mental and wellness, we hopefully can reduce stigmas. It is okay to not be okay,” she said in an e-mail to The Citizen.
As for the work that went into developing the initiative, Brekveld feels it was worth it, as it’s already starting to work its way into the culture and its place among farmers is growing.
“Use of the initiative is on the rise, as people become more aware of the resources and support available,” Brekveld said. “There is a significant number of calls coming in between midnight at 6 a.m., and we’re glad that the program is available, any time, day or night.”
At agriculturewellnessontario.ca there are a number of resources available. First, there is the Farmer Wellness Initiative, which is the hotline for farmers to call at 1-866-267-6255, followed by The Guardian Network, a project to help prevent suicide, and the In the Know program, which is all about raising awareness.
The In the Know program is being rolled out by the OFA and the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Ontario division by way of a memorandum of understanding signed by representatives of the two organizations.
The half-day sessions, developed at the University of Guelph, are designed to increase mental health awareness and create a support network specifically designed for farmers and their mental health. “In The Know” addresses specific mental health issues that affect farmers, agricultural employees and farm families.
Not only has the OFA provided funding for the development of the program, but the association also has representatives on the University of Guelph’s stakeholder working group for mental health in agriculture.
This is one of the cornerstone programs that is available on the OFA’s website, which now includes an entire page on mental health. It directs farmers to a number of resources, including the Do More Ag. Foundation, the Farmers’ Toolbox, created by the Listowel Agricultural Society, and others.
So much of mental health and wellness has to do with communication and speaking up when you’re struggling. Brekveld said that while it isn’t something that will come up at a public meeting - though she has seen it happen - she has been approached by friends when they’ve been facing mental health challenges.
It takes courage, she said, to step forward like that, but it’s a crucial part of the process.
“There is no shame in saying ‘I need help,’” Brekveld said.
When asked this year what she would say to a farmer who might be experiencing mental health challenges, but is afraid to speak up or reach out for help, she said the best way to connect is to assure the farmer in question that they are far from alone.
“I would say the following: You are not alone. There is a way forward, even if it isn’t obvious at this moment, and there are people and resources to help you find the best way possible for you,” she said. “And again, you are not alone,” she said.
For more information, resources or to reach out, visit agriculturewellnessontario.ca.