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Apr 11, 2023

5 min. read

GERRY FRIESEN (a self-identified “recovering farmer”) knew firsthand the extraordinary stresses of farming. But when he started volunteering as a counsellor on a crisis line for other farmers, it was immediately obvious that there was a massive gap in accessing proper support. He cites one farmer who had finally gone to his doctor to get some help for his overwhelming stress. “The doctor wrote him a note saying he needed to take two weeks off,” says Friesen. “That’s just not an option, There are no sick days in farming. That doctor had absolutely no sense of the intricacies involved.”

While every profession comes with its own challenges, farmers are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues, thanks to the enormous stressors involved. There’s a lack of control over potentially devastating weather conditions, blight and illnesses, the inability to take time off to rest and always-rising costs. According to a six-month national study on farmers’ mental health, conducted in 2015 by the University of Guelph, of the farmers surveyed, 58 percent met the criteria for anxiety and 35 percent for depression, and 40 percent were reluctant to get help because of the stigma involved. “We know too that suicidal thoughts and addiction issues are on the rise,” says Friesen.

Inspired by farmers’ mental health initiatives in PEI and Ontario, Friesen and Kim Moffat co-founded the Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program in 2021 to help farmers get no-cost, short-term mental health support. Accessing the help is simple. Farmers can go to the site (manitobafarmerwellness.ca), read the counsellors’ profiles to find a good fit and directly reach out to their pick. Six therapy sessions are provided free of charge, either virtually or over the phone, to avoid long commutes to and from the appointments. Another key element: All of the counsellors affiliated have some background in agriculture. “While they are not farmers themselves, they have a deep understanding of farming, either through training or a family connection,” notes Friesen.

Confidentiality is paramount and so deeply respected that no records are kept on who is accessing the service. “We don’t want that to be a barrier. There is still a huge stigma when it comes to mental health in the community,” Friesen says. “Farmers are expected to be stoic and resilient. When I was farming, I know there was a very prevalent belief that if you’re having troubles, it means you’re not working hard enough. Our goal is to help farmers connect their mental health to the health of their farm.”

And it’s working. As one recipient of the program’s services noted in a letter to Friesen, “I better understand now that tending to my own self and my own mental health is equally as important as tending to the fields. Discovering this program was a true highlight of the 2022 growing season.”

Visit manitobafarmerwellness.ca to learn more about the program.

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We want to celebrate community organizations that strive to make life better for all. Send nominations to drivenbygoodmb@caamanitoba.com to share their story.

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