Tending to Farmers’ Mental Health

“I better understand now that tending to my own self and my own mental health is equally as important as tending to the fields.”

This farmer’s statement is a powerful testament to the Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program (MFWP) shared in the Spring 2023 issue of CAA magazine.

After accessing the free, confidential, one-on-one counselling offered through the MFWP the farmer expressed, “A true highlight of the 2022 growing season for me was finding out about and using the counselling services provided by MFWP. Not only was it encouraging to hear that such a program exists, my sessions with Kim provided me with valuable perspective and insight towards how my own mental health is connected to the health of my farm.”

The unsolicited feedback was valuable confirmation for the MFWP board that they were providing a useful and needed service.

This impactful program was created by farmers for farmers to offer a safe, flexible way to get help. Why? They understand the many challenges that come with farming. They know how difficult it can be to know where to turn for help when stress on the farm begins to feel overwhelming.

A 2021 survey of farmer mental health found 76 per cent of farmers said they were currently experiencing moderate or high perceived stress. Suicide ideation was twice as high in farmers compared to the general population.

Research has found three main reasons to explain why many farmers do not seek the support they need: a lack of accessibility to mental health supports and services, mental health stigma in the agricultural community and a lack of anonymity.

The MFWP has addressed these three concerns. Improving mental health, increasing accessibility to support and decreasing stigma are their pillars to achieve the goal of safe, strong, healthy farm families.

Since March 1, 2022 they have offered free, one-on-one, short term counselling to farmers and their immediate family members. This year, the non-profit organization would like to raise funds to support 160 Manitoba farm families, and increase awareness about the program with industry, farmers and health care professionals.

Currently four counsellors, all with an understanding of agriculture, are available — during the day, evenings or on weekends to accommodate farmers’ unique schedules. It can be in person, by telephone or video chat depending on preference.

With spring arriving late in Manitoba this year, anxiety and stress are already starting to build in the ag community. Whether it be the stress of farming, or any other life circumstance impacting mental health and wellness, having the MFWP available to farmers and their families in our province is invaluable.

Appointments can be booked online here or by using this QR code.

If you would like to support this much-needed service, donations can be e-transferred to info@manitobafarmerwellness.ca or mailed to:

Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program, 7 Kingswood Crescent, La Salle, MB, R0A 0A1

Click here for more information or call 1-204-232-0574

If you, or some you know, are in crisis, please visit your local emergency department or call 911.

24/7 support can be found by calling:

Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services

Manitoba Suicide Prevention & Support Line

Klinic Crisis Line

More support/crisis services can be found here.

No longer a silent “D”

Slowly, silently, stealthily it snuck up on me. Going about my day-to-day activities, I had no idea it was approaching and ready to swallow me. Then one day, I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t know why. I had everything I needed and more. Two beautiful, healthy young children. A wonderful husband who loved me unconditionally. Amazing, supportive, loving family and friends. My health. My home. Life was better than I ever imagined it could be, yet the overwhelming sadness and despair won’t leave.

I tried to fight through it, shake it off, tell myself to smarten up, get over it. I was strong, capable, determined – or at least I used to be… Now I was so tired, spent, useless. But the more I slept, the more exhausted I became. I wanted to be alone. I couldn’t think clearly. I couldn’t focus. The simplest tasks took all my energy. I just didn’t care anymore. I was confused, but above all else – I was really scared. I had no idea what was happening to me.

That was 1995. After confessing my feelings to family, I went for counselling and eventually group therapy for — depression. I hated the “D” word and all that it represented. Beyond a couple of trusted family members, I told no one. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. Admitting I was depressed made me feel weak. I should have been able to deal with ‘it’ on my own.

My counsellor was kind, understanding, compassionate and made me see otherwise. She had me write down what had happened in my life during the last year. The first 6 months were rather uneventful, but then my mother died. Followed by the deaths of my husband’s grandfather and his great aunt. On the heels of those losses was the birth of our second child, a beautiful baby girl. Shortly after I met my biological father, whom I hadn’t seen since I was 2 years old.

After learning of this chain of events, my counselor replied, “And you’re wondering why you’re struggling?” I responded, “But not everything’s been sad – look at the birth of my daughter and meeting my dad. Other people have so much worse going on in their lives.”

Growing up, no matter what happened, we’d always been told how lucky we were, how so many others were worse off than us, to not complain, to be grateful. Her reply, “That doesn’t take away your right to grieve.”

Grieve? I thought I had done that, but looking back, so much emotion was shoved aside as I ‘got on with it’ and did what needed to be done, or what I perceived was required of me. I didn’t realize that grieving also involved ‘what might have been’ if I my biological father had been part of my life. Postpartum depression was likely also part of the equation although I do not remember it being the focus. It took several months, but eventually I felt healthy, strong and vibrant again. I can’t remember if medication was ever discussed, but for me,  counselling worked. Afterwards I quietly tucked that part of my life away.

It took years before I ever mentioned my depression to anyone, and then only to trusted sources or someone who spoke to me about their struggles. The response 99% of the time was, “You? Depressed? But you’re always so upbeat and happy!”

Actually, not always. And when you live and work on the farm, it is easy to ‘hide’. If you can, you avoid going out in public. When you must go, you quickly learn the best times to avoid seeing too many people. You arrive late and leave early. You find ways to deflect other’s asking, “How are you?”

This past summer, depression came slowly creeping back again. I didn’t recognize it at first. But by late fall, the feelings of overwhelming sadness, fatigue and inability to concentrate seemed all too familiar. I had been avoiding ‘peopling’ whenever possible for fear of tears uncontrollably flowing. I could feel myself spiraling downward but I didn’t want to hit bottom. I didn’t want to return the dark place I was in 1995. I wanted to grab a lifeline. So I did.

I started by being honest with everyone around me. When asked how I was doing (and I knew they genuinely wanted to know), I told them. I made an appointment with my doctor. Without hesitation, he discussed possible solutions including medication and counselling. I chose the latter but knew if I needed more help, it was only a phone call away. I was able to see my counsellor within a couple of weeks. In the meantime I continued on with yoga and bootcamp classes even though being in public was difficult and uncomfortable. I recognized physical activity benefited my mental state. And I walked…and walked. If I accomplished nothing else in a day, I was okay with that. Self-care became priority.

What a difference 22 years has made.

Depression didn’t make me feel weak, ashamed or afraid. I was disappointed to see it overtake me again but was grateful I recognized it. I knew how to reach for help and it wasn’t hard to find. And I realized that being honest and open doesn’t make us vulnerable, it just makes us human.

Need help or someone to talk to? Consulting with your healthcare provider or another trusted professional is always a great start.  Click on the links below for lists of places to call, text or chat across the country. 

Manitoba Farm, Rural & Northern Support Services 1-866-367-3276

Farm Stress Line – Saskatchewan 1-800-667-4442

Alberta Health Services 1-877-303-2642

Canadian Crisis Centres

Crisis Services Canada 1-833-456-4566

Bell Let’s Talk 

Mental Health in Farm Language