Service normalizes mental health among producers

·5 min read

From high input prices to adverse weather, it’s no secret that many producers across Manitoba are feeling more stress than usual this growing season.

The Manitoba Farmer Wellness program, which launched in March, has been up and running for nearly four months now, providing confidential, professional, no-cost counselling and support to Manitoba farm families.

Gerry Friesen, chief administrative officer of the program, said the idea for it began when he and some of his peers recognized a gap in the ability to access mental health service in the ag sector. After hearing about the success of such programs in Prince Edward Island and Ontario, Friesen became passionate about making the same sort of program a reality in Manitoba.

“We thought that it was important that our Manitoba farmers and their families also had availability to a program such as this.”

The changing agricultural landscape over the last decades has contributed to farmers feeling increased isolation and stress, something the program hopes to address.

“Forty or 50 years ago … everywhere you turned you had a neighbour that was also farming. Now, with the number of farmers decreasing, we are more isolated. When we start dealing with some of this overwhelming stress, and if it moves into any type of mental illness, we have a tendency to isolate ourselves even more.”

The inaugural board meeting of the program was held last October. After successful fundraising, the program — which is confidential and done completely virtually — opened its “doors” for the first time on March 1.

The goals of the program are threefold: improving farmer mental health, coping strategies and resiliency; increasing accessibility to mental health support; and decreasing stigma and increasing help-seeking behaviour among farmers.

The program was created for farmers by farmers, with the no-cost, short-term counselling delivered by professionals with a background in agriculture. The program covers the cost of six sessions per individual.

A study conducted by the University of Guelph in 2015, led by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, found that farmers as a group are vulnerable to mental health issues.

Friesen felt called to get involved because of his own struggles with mental wellness.

“I call myself the recovering farmer,” he said. “I used to farm, and I’ve had my own journey with mental illness, which started due to stress on the farm. In my case, when I look back at my journey, I know that should I have had a program such as this available to me before I slipped into the ‘abyss,’ as I call it, I think it could have helped me to have had a better life and not sunk as deep as I did.”

Though a stigma still exists regarding seeking help for mental health in the agricultural community, Friesen said it’s something that is quickly giving way in light of education and awareness.

“Over time, there’s been so much awareness built about ongoing issues on the farm and what overwhelming stress can do, and so the stigma is starting to back off. There’s not quite as much stigma anymore and people are more and more open to actually getting help for a lot of the struggles they have.”

It’s the program’s deep roots in the agricultural community that is really helping the program make a difference in the lives of farmers and their families. It’s important that everyone in farming families be supported with mental health services, so the program is offered to all farmers and their family members ages 16 and older.

Friesen said it’s important to offer support to the supporters themselves — the spouses, partners and loved ones of the person dealing with mental health issues.

“Very often people that are supporting someone dealing with anxiety and depression also need that help. It’s important for them to sign on to this program as well,” Friesen said. “When I was going through this, I did my utmost to hide it from my wife and kids. I found out later that I did a poor job of that, but I was trying to hide it because I didn’t want to burden them with it. They were trying to support me.”

Briana Hagen, director of the program, said she got involved with it because it proved to be the perfect fit for her. After receiving her PhD at the University of Guelph, the born-and-raised Manitoban, who wrote her thesis on farmer mental health, Hagen moved back home and quickly got involved with Manitoba Farmer Wellness.

The University of Guelph’s 2021 survey on mental health outcomes in agriculture noted that farmers are experiencing mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation at higher rate than the general population. Hagen said this is often due to a number of complex and nuanced reasons, including a lack of separation between home life and work life, the climate crisis and generational impacts of farm legacy. All of it adds up to a lot of pressure which can cause significant stress to the farming population.

“Another unique farming aspect is that there is generational trauma related to the land. The land is changing, and how we farm the land has to change because of the climate crisis. That’s causing generational tendons and trauma for current farmers, and it’s something that’s really understudied.”

So far, the program has received a lot of interest — something that Friesen expects will only grow as the growing season progresses and autumn comes. He wants to offer a message of reassurance and hope to anyone affected by anxiety, depression or other mental health struggles. Just taking the first step in reaching out for help opens up incredible healing opportunities.

“Without the farmer, there is no farm, and that is such an important message to get out there. As farmers, we have to do what we can. There is no shame. It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to reach out for help. And as I can attest … there is hope and there is healing.”

For her part, Hagen hopes that eventually the program will become trusted by farmers enough that they’ll recommend it to their peers. She also would like to see funding from the provincial government in the coming years, so that the program can keep reaching as many people as possible.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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