Navigating — or even finding — mental health supports for farmers can be difficult, but an effort is underway to change that.
“This is an ongoing issue that the government has been aware of for some time,” said Linda Hunt, project co-ordinator with a new initiative called the Alberta Farm Mental Health Network.
In 2019, Alberta’s agricultural service boards asked the provincial government for a dedicated crisis line for farmers. The request was spurred by research done at the University of Guelph that found mental health providers who have no knowledge of farming cannot adequately meet the needs of farmers.
That research also found a large number of producers suffer from stress, extreme anxiety or depression.
“These findings will not come as a surprise to anyone involved in farming or living in rural communities,” the Agricultural Research and Extension Council of Alberta (ARECA) says on its website. “An increasingly variable climate, policies that seem hostile to the industry, commodity price uncertainty and, of course, the pandemic have all contributed significantly to the mental health (issues) on farms and in rural communities.”
ARECA has received provincial funding and is working with several groups on the Alberta Farm Mental Health Network.
While there have been various efforts in Alberta to offer more mental health supports for producers and also national efforts by organizations such as Do More Ag, they have been “disjointed,” said Hunt.
“People are doing things here and there, but there’s no co-ordinated effort,” she said. “When you talk to farmers, a lot of them don’t have a clue how to access information unless they live in a county where there is a Family and Community Support Services (Association program) or an ag society or someone who has taken up the farm mental health banner and tried to do something with it.”
The initial goal is to determine exactly what services exist where, and how best to co-ordinate responses so farmers can easily find help when dealing with mental health concerns.
“It’s pulling the information together, finding out who is doing what and trying to make a network within the province,” said Hunt.
Part of that involves a survey of various organizations aimed at not only finding gaps in current supports, but also to gather ideas on resources that can be adapted for an Alberta audience.
“We’re trying to build momentum behind the topic,” she said.
The Canadian Mental Health Association already has a mental health network, so the Alberta Farm Mental Health Network will be co-ordinating with it. As well, AgSafe Alberta has acquired the rights to distribute a mental health literacy program (called In the Know) that was developed at the University of Guelph and aimed specifically at the ag community.
“Momentum has already started nationally and we’re looking to see what we can do in Alberta,” said Hunt.
Numerous agencies and government ministries are part of the effort.
“It’s a partnership,” said Hunt. “We’re using resources that are already there, building awareness and just trying to co-ordinate things in a way that makes it easy for producers to find the supports that already exist, and then if there are gaps, to advocate for other resources, and fill gaps as we discover them.”