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AWO’s mental health programs gaining acceptance in ag community

Updated: Jun 28


Kristin Wheatcroft, director of Agriculture Wellness Ontario. Agriculture Wellness Ontario photos

Only a few short years ago, the hesitancy to talk about mental health in the farming community was so strong that Kristin Wheatcroft coined a term for a phenomenon she’d routinely experience at industry events.


“I feel like even two years ago when we were out at shows we’d experience what I like to call the banana, where people would see the booth and do a banana around the table,” the director of Agriculture Wellness Ontario said. Many were so reticent to talk about mental health that they’d avoid the table altogether and keep a wide berth.


But thanks in part to the program run through the Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario that stigma is evaporating. “I really do have hope that it’s becoming a more comfortable conversation in the ag community,” Wheatcroft said.


There are three main programs run through AWO, beginning with the In the Know program, what Wheatcroft describes as a “Mental Health 101” workshop. It sees trained staff sit down with a group of farmers or people in the agriculture community to go over some of the basic topics surrounding mental health.


Group of people standing for a picture
The Agriculture Wellness Ontario team with Ontario’s former Minister of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Affairs Lisa Thompson.

“It’s where people can get to know the key concepts around anxiety, depression, substance use and suicide and how to start a conversation with friends and neighbours if you’re concerned about them,” Wheatcroft said.


The program’s foundation came from a 2016 University of Guelph study that showed farmers have higher stress levels and are more susceptible to chronic stress, anxiety and depression than the general population. It provided academic research to issues many in the industry had long known anecdotally, Wheatcroft said.


Lill Petrella is the team lead, mental health promotion for CMHA, covering Haldimand, Brant and Norfolk. She received training to lead the In the Know workshops three years ago, and said it’s led her to learn just how much stress many farmers carry on a regular basis.


“You think of farmers as salt of the earth and they’re very strong, and they are all of that. But I guess I didn’t realize the extent of the stress and worry that farming can be,” Petrella said.


With so many things out of a farmer’s control - from weather to global commodity markets - stress is often an inescapable part of the job.


Petrella will lead a few workshops a year and she said they’re usually well received. Often she’ll see light bulb type moments as participants realize things they’re experiencing or things they know their peers are experiencing are common. They’ll also go over some case studies of real situations (with names and specifics altered to protect confidentiality), which Petrella said are usually a big help. “It really stimulates discussions,” she said.


More recently, AWO has added two other programs to further support the ag community. In 2022 they launched a free counselling helpline for farmers to access any time of day or night.


It’s since expanded to include an employee of any farm operation in Ontario. People on the other end of the line are specially trained to understand the issues of farmers, Wheatcroft said, and can deal with a farmer who’s looking to set up planned or preventative care, as well as those who are in more of a crisis situation.


“By far the No. 1 thing people are talking about is managing chronic stress,” Wheatcroft said, adding anxiety and depression, as well as managing family relationships as other recurring topics.


The third major arm of AWO is the new Guardian Network, which encourages those in the agriculture community or those who have common contact with farmers to undergo training to recognize and support people who may be struggling.


“If you run into someone you’re concerned about, knowing how to have the conversation around ‘hey, are you thinking about hurting yourself’ and feeling confident in what words to use and you practice doing it, it can literally save someone’s life,” Wheatcroft said.


With farming often being a solitary and isolated job, the Guardian Network helps connect farmers to supports. Other farming-adjacent people like agronomists, vets, and dairy truck drivers can help bridge that gap.


Petrella said she hopes more people sign up to be Guardians because when it comes from a family member or peer it can often have much more impact than when it comes from a stranger who works in the mental health field. “People always listen to their peers and it hits home more often,” Petrella said.


Wheatcroft said they’re also looking at increasing their training opportunities to respond to the needs of the ag community as they learn more. “We hope to build that toolbox more as we grow,” she said.


As for those in the farming community who remain hesitant about looking after their own mental health, Wheatcroft said it’s not just about them.


“Trying out counselling is looking out for yourself, but it’s also looking out for your farm and your family,” she said.


Petrella said the general public also needs to appreciate farmers for what they contribute.


“They’re very tough and they do an amazing job, they’re very dedicated. But their physical and mental health kind of comes second to their work and we’re helping them to realize that that should be first and foremost on their plate,” she said.


For more information on the AWO and its programs, visit agriculturewellnessontario.com or call 1-866-267-6255. If you’re in crisis, call or text 988. 

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