Original Published April 12, 2022

By Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

A new program launched earlier this month is providing free mental health support and resources to producers.

The Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program has been created  specifically for farmers and their families to help navigate mental  health and well-being, said counsellor Kim Moffat. The initiative is  centred on offering safe, flexible and accessible mental health support  and resources.

“Farming has changed pretty significantly in the last decade,  and the stressors and the expectations and just the sheer volume of  decisions that farmers have to make, it can sometimes feel pretty  overwhelming,” Moffat said. “We want to be there to provide that ongoing  support.”

Farmers and their family members over the age of 18 can access  the program. Producers are eligible to receive up to six free sessions  with a farm-focused professional counsellor.

Sessions are available over the phone, online or, when  possible, in person. A key aspect of the Manitoba Farmer Wellness  program was offering adaptable options for producers because “farming is  not a nine-to-five job,” Moffat said. Some counsellors can meet in the  evening or on weekends. The goal of the program is to help producers and their families improve their coping skills and resiliency in the face of adversity.

Moffat is one of four counsellors included in the program, and  all come to the program with a background or experience in farming.  These ties to the agriculture industry give them special insights into  the best ways to support producers.

“They have knowledge and experience in agriculture or growing  up in rural communities, so they understand the nature and demands and  culture of farming.”

The program is aiming to break down some of the barriers that  exist for farmers and their families because they do not have the same  access to services that more urban-based demographics do. These barriers  can include the cost of support, travel time, maintaining the farm and  finding someone who can understand the demands and culture of farming.

Some people may be reluctant to reach out at first.

“Even just going to your local hospital to see a mental health  worker, people might be hesitant, especially in small communities, that  they might be seen at that services,” Moffat said. “[The program is]  giving people another way to access services, which is a good thing.”

The program is in the early stages of development. The first  few months will focus on spreading awareness about how to access it and  building trust with farmers.

Manitoba Farmer Wellness program director Gerry Friesen  described the initiative as “filling a gap” in mental health services by  offering online counselling to those in need.

The program is already finding success in the support and  donations it has received. The non-profit’s first three donations came  from farmers who understand why there is a need to provide mental health  support to agricultural producers, Friesen said.

Friesen has dealt with around 600 farm families in his career,  learning firsthand the importance of providing access to mental health  support in rural settings.

“Mental illness is the same as physical illness, and we have to be aware of that and we have to be able to get  ourselves fixed.”

Friesen has been on his own personal mental wellness journey.  He was farming in 2004 when he was diagnosed with anxiety and  depression. He has met with many professionals from whom he was able to  learn more about himself.

His mental health journey is ongoing, Friesen said, and there are steps he takes to maintain his well-being.

“I sometimes say that my service engine light has come on, so  that means I have to go see someone because I need a touch-up … just to  have a reminder of what I need to do better.”

There has been an increased awareness about the importance of  positive mental health and wellness in the agricultural sector, Friesen  said, and people are getting more comfortable talking about the subject.

A study conducted by the University of Guelph in 2015 found 58  per cent of farmers meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis  and 35 per cent of farmers meet the criteria for a depression diagnosis.

However, hesitancy still exists when it comes to talking about  mental health. Forty per cent of farmers included in the study indicated  they are reluctant to get help due to stigma.

Friesen hopes the privacy and lack of barriers offered by the  Manitoba Farmer Wellness program will encourage producers to reach out  when they are in need.

“Participants can reach out directly to the counsellor and  nobody else would need to know about it,” Friesen said. “It’s OK not to  be OK. It’s OK to reach out for help. There is hope and there is  relief.”

For more information about the Manitoba Farmer Wellness program, visit manitobafarmerwellness.ca/.

This item reprinted with permission from Brandon Sun, Brandon, Manitoba