Farmers have an appreciably higher degree of mentalhealth challenges than the rest of the population. That’s not opinion, that’s fact.
Ground-breaking, landmark studies reaching back to 2016 by University of Guelph Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton revealed huge problems with Canadian farmers’ wellbeing. A 2020-2021 follow-up study by Rochelle Thompson, Dr. Briana Hagen and Jones-Bitton re-confirmed serious issues, including impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In both studies, farmers reported feeling more stressed, depressed and anxious than other Canadians. More of them than expected were suicidal. Now, they didn’t talk about it much…and no one asked them, assuming everything was fine.
After all, they were hardy, resilient farm folks who knew how to find their way through crop failures, livestock disease and everything else that builds rural character, right?
- Advertisement -
Wrong. They were struggling mightily.
Before long, Jones-Bitton’s findings started making headlines. The very people we needed to be among the most stable in our society, to provide us with food, were in trouble. Little was being done, in part, because the findings were so new.
But in time, expertise started to develop about the dilemma, with grassroots, rural Canada leading the way. Researchers found farmers valued simply talking, getting fear and anxiety out in the open, understanding you’re not alone.
Then last week, the drive towards managing the situation took a big step forward, with the unveiling of the Canadian Centre for Agricultural Wellbeing (CCAW).
This virtual centre is a not-for-profit organization designed to support farmers with a research-to-action approach to mental health. It will work with provincial and national partners to advance farmer mental health research, clinical programming, education and advocacy.
The ag community will be pleased to see the word “action.” It will also be encouraged by what chief operating officer Marnie Wood, a University of Guelph alumnus with mental health management expertise, says are “several incredible projects on the go.”
She can’t talk about them much right now. But she says the first initiative will be updating In the Know, an award-winning, evidenced-based agricultural literacy workshop. It’s been facilitated across the country through several organizations, including the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association.
“This update will focus on bringing mental health literacy to the postsecondary setting, providing preventative support to the industry,” says Wood.
And that’s a timely effort. At the University of Illinois, Jones-Bitton’s counterpart, Dr. Josie Rudolphi, is immersed in research about farm kids’ mental health. The ripple effect of parents’ mental wellness, or illness, is huge.
The CCAW is staffed for success. Besides Wood, Ontario Veterinary College graduate Hagen, one of the top researchers in the field, is the centre’s chief executive officer and research scientist. Deborah Vanberkel, another of the few professional counsellors in Canada with expertise in farmers’ mental health, is the chief programming officer. And a board that includes Jones-Bitton will oversee the operation at a high level.
In March, the centre will co-host the National Symposium on Farmer Mental Health with The Guardian Network, an initiative of Agriculture Wellness Ontario. This symposium has been established to connect a wide swath of mental health groups – researchers, government officials and policy makers, agricultural associations and producer groups, and most importantly farmers, to address the challenges and opportunities laid before the farmer mental-health movement across the country.
Andrea Lear, chief operating office of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, believes mental wellbeing is integral to safety and health. She says her association and the CCAW will collaborate to approach farm safety, health and wellbeing holistically.
“The sustainability of farms, farmers, farm families, farm workers and farming communities depends on safety, health and wellbeing,” she says.
The bottom line? Something’s being done. It’s time, and it’s vitally important that this centre succeed.