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Campaigns championing the mental health of farmers are making it a little easier to reply ‘not so good’

Farmer-to-farmer campaigns talk about it and it’s a topic around corporate board tables.

It’s a dinner table discussion, too.

It’s getting easier to talk about mental health in agriculture, say those providing the farm community with places to do so.

For nearly 20 years the confidential farm and stress line — Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services (MFRNSS) has been where farmers can dial the phone and reach someone who understood farm-related stress and the anxiety and depression it can lead to.

They still make those calls, but farmers are talking about the state of their mental health in other ways, too, say staff with the confidential counselling service.

“Where we’re really seeing people opening up is on social media. There’s been a real explosion of people on Twitter and Facebook talking about farm stress and mental health,” says Kim Moffat, counsellor and volunteer trainer with MFRNSS.

“Guys from the cab of their half-ton, or their combine are talking about their stress. We would never have seen that before,” she said.

New campaigns championing the mental health and well-being of farmers are what’s behind it.

“They are chipping away at the stigma and making it easier for people to reach out,” she said.

The #BellLetsTalk social media campaign, aimed at breaking the silence related to depression, anxiety and other aspects of poor mental health is one example.

Last fall the all-farmer audience at Grain World in Winnipeg rose to its feet and gave the campaign’s ambassador, Canadian sports journalist Michael Landsberg, a standing ovation after giving his frank talk about struggling with depression.

Another is Do More Ag, launched in January by a team of farmers as a not-for-profit group to give mental health in agriculture more attention.

And it all began with a single tweet in the spring of 2017 by a Saskatchewan farmer realizing there weren’t enough supports available to the farm community.

Kim Keller had received a private message from someone in the ag industry looking for resources to help the family of a client who’d taken his life. It made Keller realize help was, in fact, hard to find. Her tweet, “farm stress is real, suicide is real… we gotta do more,’ was widely shared, eventually even catching the attention of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

It also set in motion a series of events that led to linking up with three founding partners and the formation of Do More Ag.

Not long after Keller’s tweet, the Kellys in Watrous, Sask. were also moved to ‘do more.’

“After we saw Kim’s tweet, my husband and I said, ‘how can we take this even further, and rather than just saying we have to do more, let’s do more,” said Lesley Kelly.

She and her husband Matt sat down to create and share their own experiences through a livestream internet video. Lesley spoke of her struggles and feeling overwhelmed after the birth of their second child. Her husband talked frankly about the anxiety that gripped him operating the farm.

Moreover, the pair talked about facing those challenges and why they were sharing their story.

It had an impact far beyond anything they’d imagined, said Kelly.

“We thought a few people would watch it,” she said. “Our goal was to help one person and mobilize the conversation. But a lot of people told us it gave them the courage either to go and ask for more help or ask other people they know who have been going through a hard time. A lot of people said it helped them have conversations about mental health right at the dinner table. A lot of people just thanked us for starting the conversation.”

Forty per cent

And, indeed, it needs to start. Struggles with poor mental health are common in the farm community, according to a national study conducted in 2016 at University of Guelph. It surveyed 1,100 farmers across the country, and documented very high levels of stress, and signs and symptoms of burnout, depression and anxiety. Yet at the same time, many surveyed said they felt they should tough it out and not tell anyone; 40 per cent said they’d feel uneasy about getting professional help ‘because of what people might think.’

The two most-asked questions of their counselling team when farmers contact them are, ‘Is this confidential?’ and, ‘Are you a farmer?’ Moffat says. (The answer to both is yes; the Brandon-based office of the service does not subscribe to call display and all its trained volunteers have farm backgrounds.)

“It’s also not uncommon for people, when they first call, to say, ‘I don’t know where to start or how this even works,’” she said.

“We just encourage them to take their time and start wherever they want and to share as much or as little as they like. You can expect to share your story with someone who is going to listen well and listen without judgment.”

But even as the stigma starts to dissipate, and more in the farm community feel more at ease sharing their stories, needed services are patchwork across Canada.

The MFRNSS team in Manitoba is not only long serving and well established as a mental health resource for farmers, but also unique in Canada.

Only Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which operates a farm stress line as part of that province’s Mobile Crisis Services, presently offer highly specialized counselling services directed at the agricultural community.

That’s where Do More Ag also hopes to bring about change, too, as gaps in policy and support are identified.

“We have three pillars,” said Kelly. “One is awareness, to help reduce the stigma and barriers. The second one is building community and getting access to support. I think to ensure that we help our farmers we need to have those resources available and have them farmer specific.

“If I were to sprain my ankle a lot of people would know what to do and where to take me. But if someone is in front of you having a panic attack, most of us would not know what to do in that time of need.”

A third pillar of their program is about enabling more research around mental health in agriculture.

All of this work will take time, but important first steps have been taken, she said.

Support for mental health initiatives will keep us moving in a direction where farmers feel more encouraged and supported to take care of their mental health.

“Mental health should be not be a conversation that is hushed or awkward or uncomfortable,” she said. “We want it to be as easy as talking about the weather.”


Links to resources

  • Do More Ag at domore.ag
  • Manitoba Farm Rural and Northern Support Services at supportline.ca or
    (Toll free) 1-866-367-3276 Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. After hours: 1-888-322-3019
    Online Support Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

What is the Manitoba Farm Rural and Northern Support Services?

MFRNSS provides telephone and online counselling, public education, a volunteer training program, a monthly Suicide Bereavement Support group and houses a Rural Mental Health Resource Centre containing books, videos and articles related to rural, northern, Indigenous, and agricultural mental health.

There are volunteer counsellors on the the phone lines at all times of the day and the counselling team will also make a call out to an individual if someone who knows them well has called the line on their behalf.

The MFRSS team also provides live chat counselling and use of its live chat line has been increasing, said Moffat.

As the name of the service implies, counselling services are available for all Manitobans, including those living on the farm or anywhere in rural or northern Manitoba.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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