Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario Commentary
By Marie Versteeg, CFFO Manager of Executive Board & Committees
Last week, Ontario’s Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, Ernie Hardeman, convened a stakeholder’s roundtable on mental health challenges facing the agriculture industry.
Research conducted in 2016 by University of Guelph professor Andria Jones-Bitton demonstrates that Canadian farmers experience much higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than the general population.
Roundtable participants, which included the CFFO, offered a number of recommendations to address the issue. Notably, almost everyone at the table had a story to tell—whether one of personal struggle or of loss in their community.
Both stigma and a “pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps” mentality in the farming community have historically made asking for help difficult. Fortunately, there are at least some signs that this attitude is changing, and this shift comes at an important moment for Ontario’s agriculture industry. The Minister’s roundtable is one sign that times are indeed changing for the better in this regard.
Premier Doug Ford’s July Speech from the Throne promised a record $3.8 billion toward mental health and addictions support. Given there are still very few details about how that money will be allocated, now is the time to argue the strong case for farmer-oriented services.
Dr. Jones-Bitton, who participated in the roundtable discussion, shared anecdotal evidence that the farming community has unique needs and therefore requires unique services. According to information from the Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services, the two most common questions they get from people calling their support line are, “Is this confidential?” and “Are you a farmer?”
It’s hard to imagine many other professions that would specifically request support from someone in the same profession. Clearly, meaningful mental health support services for farmers are going to have to be different.
Minister Hardeman zeroed in on this difference for farmers during the stakeholder’s meeting: the key issue is not one of treatment, but of delivery. In other words, the type of medical and psychological support that farmers may need isn’t all that different from other people. What is different is (1) how to promote awareness successfully and (2) how to provide access to appropriate support in rural and remote areas.
Stakeholders offered a number of specific recommendations for the farm sector, while also stressing that delivering access to mental health support is a major problem for all Ontarians.
While general services do exist and resources are listed on websites such as Do More Agriculture, there was a general consensus that the Ontario ag sector needs a concentrated hub that will be able to incorporate both prevention and long-term follow-up for rural and farm communities. One proposed solution is the development of a centre focused on mental health in agriculture that would provide social work support, training and applied research specifically geared to the needs of this sector.
Notably, trends confirm that there are signs of hope for truly improving mental health outcomes. According to Jones-Bitton, stigma is breaking down, farming culture is changing, and access to supports is improving. Provincial funding for agriculture-specific mental health supports will be vital to increase the scale of these changes.