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Farmers’ mental health getting attention this Thanksgiving

Farmers’ mental health challenges are getting more recognition this Thanksgiving season than ever before … and not a minute too soon.

University of Guelph researchers reported back in 2016 that their studies show farmers suffer from higher rates of stress, anxiety, and depression than the general population.

It’s taken a while to get the conversation going. But now, some concrete measures are developing.

To begin with, there’s recognition of the situation from the top, from Ontario Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Minister Ernie Hardeman. He says he gained insights into farmers’ mental health during roundtable discussions earlier this year.

In his annual address to recognize Ontario Agriculture Week, a calendar event always slated for the week before Thanksgiving, he noted how 2019 has been a particularly difficult one for many Ontario farmers.

The minister cited the cold, wet spring as a huge problem. It meant many farms couldn’t harvest winter crops, or plant spring crops.

Then there was Donald Trump and China, trade disruptions that created additional challenges.

It exasperates the normal stress facing farmers when fall arrives and they try to beat the inevitable rain and frost – after, of course, spending the spring and summer trying to beat insects and plant disease.

And if they raise livestock as well, they have additional stress, everything from consumer confusion about the safety of their commodities, to new rules they must follow for treating sick animals.

It all adds up.

Meanwhile, the private sector is stepping forward with its own support of farmers’ mental health. Last week, Peavey Industries LP, owner of the TSC store chain, announced it was putting $50,000 into supporting four one-day workshops with Farm Management Canada and Do More Agriculture, to be presented this winter throughout rural Ontario.

Peavey says these workshops will engage and educate farmers in support of mental health in rural communities, tying mental health to farm business management. They’ll help community members recognize the signs of stress and build the knowledge, skills and practices to gain the confidence to assist one another, and build a local support network while putting measures in place to support their own mental health.

The initiative drew praise from Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie.

“We know we need start the conversation that encourages breaking down the stigma and fear around mental health, and these workshops build upon that dialogue,” he says.

The Do More Agriculture Foundation continuously advocates for mental health support in Canadian agriculture. Adelle Stewart, executive director of the foundation, says producers are among the most vulnerable when it comes to mental health issues.

“Stress, anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout are all high among producers,” she says. That makes mental health a management issue – it’s hard to run a farm and feed the country when the walls are closing in.

Specific dates for the workshops are to be announced, but the locations have been decided: Guelph, London, North Grenville and Kawartha Lakes.

Meanwhile, at the University of Guelph, researchers are continuing to hone their “In The Know” mental health program for farmers. It’s destined to be a landmark resource, given the expertise and capacity there to understand the issues and try to address them. A key to success is public understanding. Some of the stress farmers face is outside pressure and criticism of practices that people really don’t understand. That, then, is a two-way street, involving better communication and understanding on both sides, so these ever-increasing mental health challenges can be managed.

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