Farmer mental wellness

A key priority for OFA and Ontario farm families

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by Teresa Van Raay, Director, Ontario Federation of Agriculture

If someone asks, “how are you doing?”, do you want to throw something at them, or do you break down in tears, or both? I’m not one to judge, I’m a ‘both’ kind of person.

The pandemic has brought many changes into our everyday lives. It has offered some relief from external expectations related to travel and busy schedules. However, this roller coaster of uncertainties has increased the level of pressure and stress in our families, businesses, and on our farms. Most farmers I know want to be in control and fix everything. When you are facing emotional exhaustion because of COVID constraints, there may be little control or desire to fix anything. The good news is we are not alone.

Without the traditional season of gatherings and meetings with friends, family, and the farming community, we’re encouraging everyone to be aware of the care and wellness necessary to thrive, not just survive, through the winter months. This week, we are paying tribute to all the efforts across the farm and food sector that have stepped up to respond, create conversations, and share compassion, helping shine a light on mental health and wellness to strengthen our agricultural and rural communities.

Mental health continues to be top of mind for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture’s (OFA) advocacy and outreach efforts, and we’re seeing positive progress in government and organizations focusing on managing stress and increasing the understanding of how mental health struggles can impact life on the farm.

Recently, OFA has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), Ontario Division, to address key mental health issues affecting Ontario farmers, agriculture employees, and farm families. This is a tremendous opportunity to offer half-day, evidence-based, mental health literacy programming, and create awareness and support specific for farmer mental health through ‘In the Know’ sessions. These sessions, developed at the University of Guelph, are expected to be launched in early 2021.

OFA continues to drive home the point that the agriculture industry must be recognized in the new Centre of Excellence for mental health and addiction announced by the Ontario government in February. In the meantime, to help raise the profile of farmer wellness, OFA launched two campaigns through CTV Bell Media Fields to Forks, featuring farm voices speaking about the importance of seeking help in times of distress, and planning for support to avoid the dangers of working alone when overwhelmed.

At the grassroots level, county federations of agriculture have been leading the way on hosting workshops and Mental Health First Aid training. The Farmer Wellness Program is gaining traction as Lennox and Addington, Hastings and now Northumberland members have access to counselling sessions, and other counties are poised to join this model in the future. Even Agricultural Associations are championing the cause, with the recent release of the Listowel Agricultural Society Farmers’ Toolbox raising the profile and increasing awareness of resources.

Provincially, organizations, including Grain Farmers of Ontario, are increasing awareness by sharing listings of agencies and counsellors who understand the realities of farm life, and focusing on wellness-themed social media posts. The Ontario Veterinary College of the University of Guelph has divided the components of well-being into eight domains, accompanied by simple, everyday activities to encourage mindfulness, which is available on OFA’s website.

The harsh reality is that sometimes the struggle for balance and mental wellness on the farm is closer to home than we realize. It brings priorities into sharp perspective when we learn, sometimes too late, that someone in our circle is in a really dark place.

Think of mental health and wellness as a dashboard using these helpful tips:

  • Check your own levels – are you close to ‘empty’ on energy, patience, sleep, hydration … or cruising close to burnout? Is your “give a darn” meter broken?
  • Find ways to recharge – hobbies, staycations, breaks from everyday farm tasks, enjoy a favourite comedy show, write down something you are grateful for (chocolate counts).
  • Do a circle check of your network – check in on neighbours, friends, and family. When you ask how they are doing, really listen.
  • Don’t hesitate, reach out for help – Look for help from a specialist if the situation is overwhelming, or start by talking to a trusted COVID comrade. We are in this together.

We advocate for economic growth and prosperity for Ontario farm businesses, but, at our core, we care about the health and wellness of our 38,000 farm family members, as individuals. As farmers, we often pride ourselves on our work ethic, strength, and entrepreneurial spirit. But in order to maintain the resilience required to thrive, mental well-being must be part of the equation. It begins with starting a conversation and watching out for each other. Together, our sector is looking out for the most important resource in Ontario agriculture … our people.

For information, resources and help lines, visit  ofa.on.ca/issues/mental-health. If you need immediate help, please contact the toll-free mental health and addictions line at 1.866.531.2600.

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