OFA COMMENTARY: Improved mental health services must reach into rural Ontario

As an agricultural industry, we are making significant strides in breaking down barriers and stigma around mental health. Dr. Andria Bitton-Jones and her PhD student, Briana Hagen helped to propel this issue into mainstream conversation and were recognized this week at the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s Annual General Meeting with Brigid Rivoire Award for Champions of Agricultural Mental Health, nominated for this award by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).

On Feb. 19, the Ontario government announced the creation of a new Mental Health and Addiction Centre of Excellence within the provincial health ministry. This is positive news for the estimated one million Ontarians who experience mental health or addiction challenges.

There is still much more work to do, especially in rural communities. We know there is a need for improved mental health resources for farmers and their families. The province indicates they are working towards “building a comprehensive and connected system of services that works for all Ontarians.” The OFA will be focusing on the “for all Ontarians” aspect of this new initiative to ensure mental health support and services extend deep into our rural communities and addresses the needs of our members.

OFA members have vocalized the importance of making this issue a priority for agriculture, by bringing a resolution forward to the 2019 Annual General Meeting to expand the accessibility and support of mental health resources for the farming community.

We know mental health in the agricultural industry and in our rural communities bring unique stressors and requires dedicated resources. We will be working on behalf of our members to ensure the needs of farmers and the agricultural community are recognized and supported in this new Centre of Excellence for mental health and addiction.

OFA has already been active on several projects and initiatives regarding farmer mental health, including providing funding and representation on the University of Guelph stakeholder working group for mental health in agriculture.

The working group is developing the ‘In the Know’ mental health literacy programming for agricultural and rural communities. OFA has also been involved in providing funding to the L&A Farmer Wellness Program, which offers local mental health support for farmers in Lennox and Addington county.

Farming is an unpredictable business, and the stress of dealing with so many factors that are out of our control such as weather and markets can take a toll on our mental health. Add in the limited opportunities to take a break from it all because agriculture never stops, and it’s clear that some of the strategies that may work for a mental health break in some situations don’t play out for us.

OFA is focused on increasing the awareness of mental health challenges, ensuring a province-wide availability of support and breaking down the barriers in asking for help. Small rural communities are by nature close-knit, and that can make it difficult to ask for help if you are worried that others may find out you’re struggling. With the vast majority of farms run as family businesses, there can be additional challenges with working side-by-side with family.

Most importantly, if you, or someone in your community, is struggling and needs help, know that there are people and resources available to help.

If you are in a crisis situation, go to your local emergency department or call 911. To access a list of resources, visit ofa.on.ca/issues/mental-health.

Keith Currie, President, Ontario Federation of Agriculture