You are Worth it

A closer look at a new free counselling service just for farmers.

By Colleen Halpenny

“Mental health is everyone’s health. This is a grassroots movement that farmers were taking the initiative to start, and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) is proud to partner with Lifeworks and the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) to bring this program province-wide,” explains Cathy Lennon, general manager of the OFA.

“The behind the scenes work to bring these deliverables to the table has been something of a goal for the last almost 10 years. And truly it all came together in under a year,” adds Wes Sheridan, vice president of Lifeworks.

Kristin Wheatcroft, farming mental health team lead with CMHA Ontario, says, “this is a support service you can use not only any time of the day, but with access to free counselling. This program is here to bridge that previously unfilled gap.”

Launched on Jan. 1, the initiative is funded through the provincial and federal governments. This funding allows farmers and family members to access free support when they need someone to reach out to.

Sheridan says “modes of delivery are based on the individual’s comfort level. Lifeworks is proud to offer counsellors in every region of the province, in both official languages, so producers can choose if they would prefer in-person or over-the-phone sessions.”

“What we need to get the word out on is that this isn’t just a crisis line. You can call to talk through the small things, before they become big things,” says Wheatcroft.

The need for more

A national survey conducted from September 2015 to February 2016 led by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, an associate professor of epidemiology in the Department of Population Medicine and director of Well-Being Programming with the Ontario Veterinary College from the University of Guelph, found that there are multiple mental health complications facing farmers.

The survey measured five mental health outcomes using validated psychometric scales; responses were received from over 1,100 farmers representing all commodities in the agricultural sector. Roughly 45 per cent of farmer respondents had high stress, and 58 per cent and 35 per cent met the classifications for anxiety and depression.

Additionally, the results indicated a high risk for burnout in our farmers. Burnout is measured on three sub-scales: high emotional exhaustion, high cynicism, and low professional efficacy. Furthermore, 67 per cent of respondents scored lower than population norms in terms of resilience, which leaves them vulnerable to the consequences of chronic stresses, including physical and mental illnesses.

“These results are concerning and represent a major risk to the Canadian agricultural sector as poor mental health and well-being has negative implications for the individual farmer, as well as their families, livestock, production, and financial bottom lines,” says Jones-Bitton.

Addressing the gaps in the understanding of mental health and resilience among farmers is key to supporting agriculture and food systems, informing resource and training development, and allocating resources and service delivery.

Hence, the objectives of this study were to estimate the prevalence of stress, anxiety, depression, and resilience among Canadian farmers.

“What resonated with me from Dr. Jones-Bitton’s work in 2015 was that 40 per cent are reluctant to seek professional help because others might find out. We collectively need to normalize that everyone faces challenges and reaching out to get support is good for not only yourself, but also your family, your farm, and your community,” says Wheatcroft.

“We’re finding that some of the top reasons producers are calling in aren’t those crisis situations, but those everyday ones when a new voice to offer some perspective is worthwhile. These include personal stress, workplace stress, anxiety, legal advice, debt, parenting, ownership in an organization, conflict resolution, communication strategies, and general life stages.”

In another study led by Jones-Bitton, Dr. Briana Hagen and team examined the motivations and barriers to help-seeking behaviours. Between 2017 and 2018, semi-structured interviews were conducted with 75 farmers and individuals who work with farmers in Ontario. Topics of discussion included farming stresses and their impacts; personal well-being; agricultural crises and mental health help-seeking; use of mental health supports; motivators and barriers to help-seeking; and perceived ideals for mental health supports.

Dr. Hagen and the team’s analysis resulted in five themes around help-seeking motivations and barriers: (1) Accessibility of mental health supports and services; (2) Stigma around mental health in the agricultural community; (3) Anonymity and/or lack of anonymity in seeking support; (4) Farm credibility; and (5) Recommendations for implementing mental health services for the agricultural community.

Lennon says that “tremendous research from Dr. Jones-Bitton and her team helped us narrow in on those barriers which were keeping farmers from reaching out. Combined with what we were seeing and hearing ourselves at the ground level, we really wanted to structure a program that would break those previously-held restrictions away.

“From there, we worked to build a program which would be accessible in both English and French, from any location in the province, and in the format those seeking to connect would best respond to. To achieve this, we knew we needed to partner with a company who would not only meet those requirements, but also be willing to take the time to understand the farming community. We are so grateful to have those qualities in Lifeworks.”

Sheridan continues, “we were looking at developing protocols which could help those rural communities, and then when Cathy reached out in late 2021 to say we need to get this rolled out for every single producer, and they need to feel understood, we partnered with CMHA Ontario to grow the strength of deliverables. From there we really mirrored our approach after the great work that was launched by Deborah Vanberkel in Eastern Ontario.

“Along with crowd funding from local counties, Deborah had launched a wellness program completely geared towards the farming communities when she realized it simply didn’t exist.

“We immediately reached out to Deborah to not only learn from what her program was already doing, but to bring her knowledge to our network of over 900 counsellors. Farmers can’t spend their valuable time explaining the workings of a farm, so we needed to bring our team up to speed to understand what a day in the life of a producer looks like, what challenges they could be facing, how internal family partnerships can create turmoil, and what those generational pressures may be.

“Deborah has become such a mentor to our team. They feel confidence in her knowledge of the agriculture industry, know they can go back to get additional clarity on an overreaching topic, and feel that she is preparing them to be a positive source of assistance for producers of any age, commodity, and situation of strain.”

How it works

“While many may believe that you need to be in a crisis situation when you finally pick up the phone, that’s simply not the case,” says Wheatcroft.

“This is a service that when you call, you have avenues to crisis and general support. What you receive is completely tailored to you on that first connection.”

“When an individual makes that first call, you’re greeted by one of our intake team members. From there, they will ask a variety of questions, assess any urgent needs, and either directly connect you to a crisis counsellor, or make an appointment to a counsellor over the phone or in person based on what you feel most comfortable with,” outlines Sheridan.

farmer leaning on truck talking on cell phone
    Intake callers and crisis counsellors are available for farmers through the Farmer Wellness Initiative 24/7/365. - Jodie Aldred photo

“Intake callers and crisis counsellors are available 24/7/365 – we need to run the same hours producers do. When you look at the data, we’re getting a full third of our total call volumes between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m. It’s when we find people are unable to sleep, and need to reach out. So our team is here to pick up that call, and reassure them that they are heard.

“Whether they need help with an immediate crisis, or an appointment for video, phone, or in-person session, knowing they’ve finally made that reach for support is very gratifying.”

Who can call?

“Anyone. Any time. From the outstart we at the OFA, the team at OMAFRA, Lifeworks and CMHA Ontario knew we didn’t want this program to be limiting. We needed to deliver to every single producer. We are a logical communicator to get the word out about the program through our social channels, newsletters and other networks of communication. But you can’t exclude anyone from this conversation. That’s not going to break the cycle of stigma that is so rampant in the agriculture community,” says Lennon.

“During initial talks we had also put the goal of unlimited counselling on the table. No issue is singular in occurrence; no problem is truly solved after one attempt. We know there are topics and concerns that need to have access to longer-term support. However, there are a finite number of resources. So, we started with what we could, and those initial four sessions were a great groundbreaker.

“We are so delighted that we were able to pull together additional funding, and now that cap is gone. We want producers to know that support isn’t here for a short time – this is here for as long as they need it.”

As Wheatcroft explains, “the research that continues to come out of Guelph shows that stresses are not related to farm size or type – it’s universal to anyone in the community.

“Everything is completely private and confidential – if you are 16 years of age and older you just pick up the phone and these experienced professionals are ready and waiting for you.

“We’ve even worked to develop solutions for those who are 12 to 15. We recognize that in rural communities, a lack of counselling services for youth and long wait-lists are not going to give them the support they need. While they will need parental consent, it’s a simple OK over the phone. Everything else remains confidential.

“This program is more than just a deliverable. This is our community. This is our passion.”

Response so far

“In the months since we’ve launched, the call response has been outstanding. And surprising! Our largest group of callers in those beginning months were ages 55 to 64, but also great to see those young 16-year-olds taking the initiative to put their mental health first,” says Wheatcroft.

“The age demographics were different than what we had theorized but isn’t it nice to see an older generation of producers realizing they need to take the time to take care of themselves in perhaps a way they haven’t before,” says Sheridan.

Jones-Bitton says “it has been terrific to see the attention directed to farmer mental health in Canada over the last five years. Agricultural communities, industries, organizations, and governments are discussing mental health, challenging preconceived notions, and in several instances, taking actions to help. We’ve seen increased uptake of mental health literacy training in agricultural communities, which should help people be better able to recognize signs and symptoms of mental distress and to respond appropriately – not counselling, but supporting their friends, family members, community members, and helping bridge them to trained mental health professionals.”

Lennon says “there is no farm size requirement, no membership requirement. If you are first-generation or fifth-generation, if you are young, if you are old – this program is for you!”

If you’re unsure about reaching out, Sheridan says, “when you pick up that phone, you will find someone on the other end of the line that completely understands your situation. What’s been key for this program has been reminding producers that they are important, and your counsellor is empathetic to your concerns. You have someone to listen to you voice your concerns, to offer support, and remind you that you are not alone.”

For Wheatcroft, it’s reminding producers and families, “you are worth it. You are important enough to take care of. You can do a great job taking care of soil, animals, machinery, and those around you. But this is a part of taking care of everyone else as well. Make the time for yourself.”

“With the change to unlimited sessions, we hope more producers take that leap to call and get the help and support, regardless of how long that may be for. Our counsellors are eager to talk to you,” says Sheridan.

“As farmers, business owners, family members, we gamble with so many choices every day. Will or won’t the weather cooperate? Will or won’t this calving go smoothly? Will or won’t there be toxins in the feed? Will or won’t we be able to take that family vacation all together? This is something you do not need to gamble with. Make yourself a priority. No conflict or fear is too small. You deserve to be heard,” concludes Lennon.

Producers can call 1-866-267-6255 to connect. BF

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