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