Farmers who tap into a new mental health service will get relatable, anonymous support for their struggles, according to the organization behind the initiative.
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The Do More Agriculture Foundation has launched AgTalk, a platform for those in the Canadian agriculture industry. It is a partnership between the foundation, RBC, BASF and the McCain Foundation and is facilitated by Togetherall, an online mental health support community used by more than 250 private organizations.
Why it matters: Mental health advocates say farmers often suffer in silence from high levels of stress, anxiety, burnout and depression. A new service is designed to assist them.
“We are the national voice and champion for mental health in Canadian agriculture and we’re working to change the culture in agriculture to one where all are empowered to take care of their well-being,” said Do More Agriculture executive director Megz Reynolds at the June 20 launch at Canada’s Farm Show in Regina.
The platform will be monitored at all hours by licensed clinicians and open to anyone involved in agriculture aged 16 and up.
Reynolds pointed to a now well-circulated study from the University of Guelph in 2016-17, in which 35 per cent of surveyed producers met the classification for depression and 58 per cent met the classification for anxiety. About 45 per cent reported high stress.
Another survey from the same researchers in 2021 had no better results. Over twice as many farmers suffered from suicide ideation compared to the national average and 76 per cent were experiencing “moderate or high perceived stress.”
About a quarter said they “felt their life was not worth living, wished they were dead, or thought of taking their own life” in the year prior to the survey.
As well as being anonymous, developers say Ag Talk focuses on easy accessibility.
“You could be in the cab of a piece of equipment; you could be in the barn and you don’t necessarily need to tell anyone that you’re connecting for support, because sometimes you don’t want people to know in your life that you’re reaching out,” Reynolds said.
Jonathan Sweat, vice-president of BASF Agricultural Solutions, noted his own experience with mental health.
“Growing up in agriculture myself, growing up in a farmhouse, you witness the stress firsthand,” he said. “And of course it doesn’t stop with growers. It goes beyond farmers to the people like us who serve farmers.
“This is something that I think will be warmly received and I look forward to seeing how this goes. Having access to mental health support is essential for those living and working in the farming environment.”
Reynolds later said farmers are often concerned about sharing stories with people they may know personally. Because of this, AgTalk will connect farmers to help from all across Canada, not just in their own communities.
“If I’m a farmer in Nova Scotia, I don’t want to connect to another farmer in Nova Scotia because that’s too close to home and I’m not going to feel comfortable sharing,” she said.
Reynolds also noted the stigma often attached to mental health.
“External stigma is what is going to keep someone from booking an appointment with a mental health professional in their community because they’re afraid someone will drive by and see their truck parked outside.
“Internal stigma is what keeps someone from being able to recognize that there is something going on, that they’re possibly struggling and then being able to accept it.
“In agriculture, we’re a very stoic industry,” she said. “There’s a reason there’s a saying, ‘cowboy up’ or ‘tough it out.’ Traditionally, people have connected talking about mental health — or being open about the fact that maybe you’re having a hard time right now because of everything that’s going on out of your control — that (it) means that you’re weak, which of course it doesn’t.”
Reynolds said sources of stress and anxiety for farmers can come from a wide variety of areas, including weather, disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine and the pandemic.
“It really feels like the hits just aren’t stopping coming. They just keep coming and you’re getting less time between the challenges,” she said.
“It could be the weather. It could be not being able to say what you’re selling your product or your quantity for. It could be living and working with family.”
She added that many farmers feel anxiety over the possibility of activists disturbing their operations or exposing them to biosecurity risk.
Reynolds said AgTalk will focus on ‘self-maintenance’ rather than ‘self-care.’
“Self-care comes across too fluffy sometimes.”
In contrast, self-maintenance is about recharging internal batteries, “especially before going into some of those really busy seasons,” and taking the chance to control the stress-causing aspects of farm life when the opportunities arise. This could include financial literacy or emergency preparedness, she said.
More information on AgTalk can be found at domore.ag/agtalk.