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Farmers need mental health services just for them

Momentum is building for a comprehensive national mental health program specifically for Canadian farmers. It’s taken some five years, but the spotlight on farmers’ mental health issues seems to finally be switched on.

This story began in the middle of the last decade, when University of Guelph veterinary medicine professor Andria Jones-Bitton started quantifying the extent of farmers’ mental health issues.

Through her research, she showed mental health problems were significantly more prevalent among farmers, compared to rest of us.

Stress, anxiety, depression and burnout were all higher with farmers than with the general population. Difficult working conditions, such as isolation, bad weather, trade imbalances, plant and animal disease and financial pressure were among the catalysts for farmers’ mental health woes.

Unfortunately, some of those issues may never go away.

But Jones-Bitton’s findings sparked a fire. They got people talking. And the ball started rolling.

One of the most prominent developments that ensued was the creation of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, a grassroots, non-profit organization focussed on mental health in agriculture.

Since 2017, it’s taken a lead in raising the problem’s profile. It’s championed two major awareness campaigns, delivered mental health education to more than 900 producers and developed its own mental health seminar dedicated specifically to agriculture.

By the foundation’s own admission though, not much has changed. Statistics documenting mental health issues’ prevalence remain about the same.

However, the other significant development over the past year is of course the COVID-19 pandemic. When store shelves started emptying, the public suddenly became aware that we need a secure food system… and that it all begins with farmers. We need them healthy, in body and mind.

That understanding may be what carries a new proposal being promoted at the highest levels by Do More Agriculture: that is, the creation of a free, 24/7, nationwide mental health service tailored to the agriculture industry’s needs, and not limited by broadband access.

Throughout 2020, the foundation worked with an international mental health service provider to develop a vision for the service. Among its hallmarks are ag-savvy counsellors who understand farmers’ specific issues. They would be required to complete a three-phase agricultural literacy program, so they can talk the talk and walk the walk.

The foundation calls the proposed service “robust.”Others will call it a meaningful response to several significant studies, efforts and calls to action for mental health services that evolved from Jones-Bitton’s initial research.

Among them is the federal Report of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food’s “Mental Health: A Priority For Our Farmers,” and Farm Management Canada’s award-winning “Healthy Minds, Healthy Farmers” report.

The standing committee recommended that the Government of Canada, in cooperation with its provincial and territorial counterparts, fund the activities of recognized and accredited organizations that provide mental health assistance to farmers and their families.

To that end, the foundation is now leading a letter-writing campaign, asking Canadians to contact their elected representatives and show support for such a national program.

It doesn’t want to replace the limited programs that have sprung up over the past few years; rather, it wants funding in place to help them, and get the round-the-clock service going as well.

There could hardly be a more timely initiative. Spring is coming (honestly, it is) and before long farmers will be back in their fields, facing many of the same chronic issues that have eaten away at them for years.

Approaching this, might it lighten farmers’ load to know the wheels are in motion to help them through mental health challenges like never before?

I say yes.

I support this service and I hope you do too.

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