Ontario’s largest agricultural group has partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association to make mental health supports more accessible to the agriculture community.
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.
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 counseling 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, president of the OFA, 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.
A Guelph University study 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 is a region representative on the Grain Farmers of Ontario board representative 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 said she 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.”
Calvi Leon is aa local journalism initiative reporter based at the London Free Press. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.