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Lessons from the front line of the rural stress line

Doug Grossart, who lost a loved one to mental illness, 
now helps other people cope with their internal struggles

mature man

Some people are recruited into politics, while others are recruited into the police force. Doug Grossart was sought out for an equally important, albeit unpaid, public service as volunteer for the Manitoba Farm and Rural Stress line.

“We did kind of chase him around for a while before he agreed to do it,” laughs Kim Moffat, one of the counsellors.

She first saw Grossart when he presented at a conference in Souris. He spoke about the difficulties of losing a loved one to mental illness.

“I was just so impressed by how honest and authentic and real and brave he was to be talking about this in such a public way. I thought that’s the kind of person we need working on these lines.”

mature man
"A lot of people for whatever reason might have been made to feel like they didn't count. We try and tell people they're a worthwhile person." – Doug Grossart photo: Meghan Mast

Grossart lost his son several years ago, in 1990, to suicide. He thinks his personal experience has strengthened his empathy and helps him better understand the struggles other people go through.

“I guess it’s made me more accepting that what you think is normal may not be normal for a lot of people,” he said.

Grossart is one of several volunteers working for the stress line, a program of Klinic Community Health Centre.

Klinic, along with the Winnipeg Suicide Prevention Committee and Winnipeg-based Tactica Interactive recently launched an app, called The Calm in the Storm, available this month for free through iTunes and the Google Play store.

The idea was born during the 2011 flood when rural Manitobans and farmers were experiencing higher-than-average stress. Initially the organizations put together a small booklet with resources and coping skills.

When the 2014 flood hit this year staff decided to build an app that was free and easily accessible.

“There are a number of health-based mental health support apps out there, but this is the first one we’re aware of that ties in the idea of stress and suicide prevention,” said Janet Smith, program manager for the Manitoba Farm and Rural Support Services.

The app has users rate their stress level, and then depending on the rating, suggests steps for managing that stress. Medium ratings may be directed towards guided meditation or breathing exercises, while high levels of stress may be directed to call 911 or the local crisis line.

Research on suicide doesn’t often survey rural populations, but there is reason to believe it occurs more often in remote areas.

Farmers often face unexpected challenges — such as inclement weather, crop loss, or biosecurity issues.

“In rural areas as a whole there’s less access to services and less anonymity,” said Smith. “So it can be a barrier to people getting the help they might need.”

The app, along with the help-line, provides a safe space for people to call in and speak with someone disconnected from their community.

Grossart said he has learned a lot since starting at the crisis line. Not much surprises him anymore, and he has learned the importance of asking difficult, but crucial, questions. He has found asking someone whether or not they are suicidal can be a relief to them. Sometimes he is the first person they admit this to.

“It’s a matter of providing some hope,” he said. “A lot of people for whatever reason might have been made to feel like they didn’t count. We try and tell people they’re a worthwhile person.”

Some calls hit closer to home than others. One that particularly stands out to Grossart was when a father phoned in because he was worried his son was suicidal.

Though he is sensitive to the fact that everyone’s experience is his or her own, Grossart felt that he could really understand what that father was going through.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some point through a friend, colleague or family member. Twenty per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime. And yet the stigma remains, because people are often afraid to admit their invisible struggles.

At his son Bill’s funeral, Grossart said, the funeral director told him that his family was the only one to acknowledge the death was a suicide.

“I think we got off on the right foot by doing that,” he said.

“None of us can go back to yesterday. You do what you can and you hope for the best.”

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