Farmers encouraged to reach out for mental health supports

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by Sara Wood, Director, OFA

Summer is a busy time on the farm. Whether we’re cutting hay or silage to feed our livestock next winter, getting fresh fruits and vegetables to market or harvesting grain crops, there is no shortage of work to keep everyone busy.

Weather is also top of mind at this time of year. Not enough rain keeps crops from growing properly, but too much keeps us from harvesting them – and we’re also always keeping an eye on the latest weather warnings in hopes that we can be spared damage from severe summer storms.

And like many other Ontarians, farmers also worry about inflation, rising interest rates, and the high cost of living and running a business.

These aren’t new challenges. In fact, the tough financial times of the early 1980s caused many farmers at the time to discourage their children from a career in agriculture and it’s important that we don’t lose another generation of farmers. For too long, stress and mental health in the ag community have been accompanied by the stigma of perceived weakness.

In recent years, research coming out of the University of Guelph has drawn a lot of attention to the high levels of stress farmers face and the impact it is having on them and their families. It’s traditionally been something that was kept quiet, even in my own family as I grew up on my parents’ dairy and crop farm.

Now, however, the industry is finally talking about it and working together to take action.

Last year, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, with the support of the governments of Canada and Ontario, through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, partnered with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) – Ontario Division to develop and launch the Farmer Wellness Initiative.

It is the first step of a multi-year, province-wide program that provides free counselling services virtually, in-person or on the phone by professional counsellors with agricultural backgrounds and training.

The confidential helpline is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in English and French, as well as up to 30 other languages, and the FWI website explains how to use the free service.

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.

At OFA, we’ve been working hard to let farmers know that the service exists. I farm in Perth County and our local federation of agriculture, for example, has met with municipal councillors to let them know about the program, and they’ve been happy to make the information available to their rural constituents.

As awareness increases, so does use of the Farmer Wellness Initiative, and it’s making a difference. I attended various agricultural events and trade shows last fall and winter where I heard from people about how relieved they were that a program like this is available for farmers, especially in rural areas where healthcare and mental health supports and resources can be very limited. This shows that we’re meeting a need and that the farm community is starting to embrace the help that is available.

Long-standing stigmas and perceptions can be hard to break, but we all need help at some point and recognizing that isn’t a weakness. In fact, I believe it instead shows a person’s strength – and that’s something that should be recognized and supported.

For many of us, it’s not easy to ask for help, as I’ve learned firsthand recently in going through cancer treatments, but that shouldn’t keep us from reaching out.

To access counselling through the Farmer Wellness Initiative, call 1-866-267-6255 or visit farmerwellnessinitiative.ca.

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