Supporting mental health in uncertain times

Mental Health First Aid Canada provides training for individuals to provide effective peer support for family and community members who may struggle with mental illness.

by Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

Government officials increasingly recognize that the province needs to provide more mental health solutions for Ontarians, and particularly the ag community, said a statement from Christa Roettele, an OMAFRA spokesperson.

So, beginning in 2018, the province allocated a total of $3.8 billion for mental health, addictions, and supportive housing over the next 10 years. The government has also invested $12 million in expanding online and virtual mental health supports during the COVID-19 pandemic, she added.

However, many farmers have inadequate Internet access, and rely on peer support to maintain mental wellness.

To equip farming communities with peer support skills, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Canada helps to train individuals as first aiders. This training enables them to navigate effectively through tricky conversations with friends and loved ones who may experience mental health challenges, explained Denise Waligora. She’s a MHFA training and delivery specialist.

The Do More Agriculture Foundation has a community fund supported by Farm Credit Canada and other partners to help bring the basic MHFA training to agricultural communities across the country.

“It’s a very interactive, two-day, certified course,” Waligora said.

Because the course is certified and evidence-based, adapting MHFA to a specific population would take years of work. For now, the case studies and examples are adapted to make them relatable to agricultural communities.

MHFA training “allows (participants) to have a safe place to practise some of their skills and to have those conversations around mental health,” Waligora said. “In the basic course we cover substance-, mood-, anxiety- and trauma-related disorders, as well as psychotic disorders.”

Participants learn about indicators, signs and symptoms, and then follow an ALGEE acronym as “a conversation guide,” she added.

ALGEE stands for Assess, Listen, Give reassurance, Encourage appropriate professional help, and Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

“In two days, we cannot teach someone to be a therapist or counsellor, nor give somebody the tools to diagnose someone else or themselves,” Waligora explained. However, the training guides participants on how to navigate difficult topics and provide support by really listening to the person who is struggling.

“Listening is the most important thing we can do. … It’s really about being comfortable to have that conversation,” Waligora said.

Instructors also provide local resources, and cover crisis first aid for acute stress reaction, panic attacks, overdose, suicidal behaviour, and psychotic episodes.

Suicide “is one of those topics that we know there’s a lot of stigma about. But we talk about it in a really safe place and really trust that, when participants leave, they feel confident in their skills,” Waligora said.

MHFA staff have postponed courses until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, tools and techniques participants learned in previous MHFA courses may empower farmers and other individuals to provide peer mental health support through open and effective conversations.

In the interim, MHFA is offering a two-hour online course geared toward essential workers. It is not certified training, but “highlights how to support others while taking care of our mental health,” Waligora said. The course can be accessed here. BF

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