By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Seeking help for mental health is not a weakness, it’s a strength. Plus it’s a smart choice for your family and business, say professionals launching the new Guardian Network.
“Having people in your community normalize that we have ups and downs is so important. And having them encourages you to connect with someone in mental health because it is really smart of you, your family, your farm, our animals,” says Kristin Wheatcroft, team lead for farm mental health programs at the Canadian Mental Health Association.
The Guardian Network is a volunteer program which trains people who work in close contact with the agricultural community to observe changes in individuals which may indicate a developing mental health issue. A Guardian is a caring individual who has successfully completed The Guardian Network training program so they can provide acute support to producers who are presenting at risk for suicide.
With a pilot of the training completed, network leaders are now accepting applications for the monthly Guardian training sessions. The Guardian program is part of the Farmer Wellness Initiative (FWI) launched by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture in response to concerns about mental health in the agricultural community.
“Right now is a stressful time for farmers,” says Wheatcroft. “This year has been particularly hard.” Along with the usual stressors of variable weather, farm family relationships and succession planning and financial issues, producers were dealing with livestock health issues such as avian influenza and exorbitant input costs due to geopolitical issues beyond farmers’ control. Plus, the weather has been extreme.
This can lead to stress, distress and suicidal thoughts in farmers who aren’t coping with all the demands of agricultural life.
Oftentimes, it’s difficult for those with mental health issues to recognize what is happening to them or talk about it. But peers, salespeople, veterinarians, agronomists, community-minded people and friends may notice signs of struggle.
“Guardians will be trained to recognize when something is off on the farm,” explained Wheatcroft. “They might see that the barn looks different than it usually does or that someone isn’t on time or not where they were supposed to be when they used to be punctual.”
Guardians are encouraged to ask farmers how they are doing. Wheatcroft said future Guardians practise these conversations in the training so they know what words to use and develop a comfort level. “A big part of the training is role playing and watching a facilitator who is a trained social worker do it,” she said
The training also clears up the misconception that asking someone if they plan on hurting themselves will make them do it. “That is just not true. There is no research to support that. It is actually okay to ask someone how they are doing and express concern if you are worried,” says Wheatcroft.
Wheatcroft says having someone alongside when a farmer needs help, to get the support they need, is invaluable. “It cannot be underestimated how powerful that can be,” she said. “It is hard to get help alone.”
Bethany Parkinson agrees. She is a registered social worker and the psychological support coordinator and trainer for The Guardian Network.
“Farming is a lifestyle with stress and uncertainty,” says Parkinson. “One of the biggest supports outside of counselling relationship support, is knowing that they can have a conversation with a veterinarian or seed salesman or folks in their community. “
She also encourages farmers to develop their own coping strategies. “I know it’s hard for farmers, but try to get a good night’s sleep. That is a huge factor for mental health.”
Parkinson also encourages them to eat regularly and get off the farm to do things that promote well-being and happiness.
Parkinson is holding Guardian sessions monthly and says if a group wants to join, she can set up a session just for that group. The sessions include role playing, practising asking questions and identifying critical moments of stress.
“Guardians worry about asking questions but the way I frame it, it is better to ask the question than not. If you don’t ask, there is the worry that something will actually happen to that farmer,” says Parkinson.
Parkinson is a farmer herself, currently involved in succession planning to take over her parents’ farm alongside her brother. Farming is her lifestyle and social work is her nine to five job. Having lived with, and been a farmer her whole life, she is very aware of the need to take care of her own mental health.
“I go for a mental health walk every day whether I am on the farm or away from the farm,” shared Parkinson. “I take in deep breaths and I reach out to my own mental health supports.”
She is not ashamed to say she also goes to counseling. “I find that people are often shocked that a person who is a social worker needs her own support. But it is something I really value so I share that with people.”
Alongside the Guardian Network, the OFA launched a telehealth line as part of the FWI. The telehealth line that makes mental wellness support available to all Ontario farmers went live on September 13. The FWI is addressing growing mental health concerns in the agricultural sector by offering more accessible mental health and wellness support to farm families across the province.
“The mental health crisis in the agriculture community has been well documented in recent years and the FWI fills a critical gap for farmers and their families across Ontario,” says Peggy Brekvevd, farmer and President of the OFA. “Bottom line – if you are part of a farm family in Ontario and need mental support for any reason, this telehealth line is available to you.”
OFA partnered with the CMHA to launch this initiative. The confidential help line is accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year in English and French and services up to 30 other languages.
The mental healthline for farmers can be reached at 1-866-267-6255. ◊