By Connor Lynch
ODESSA — When an Ontario farmer at risk of suicide reached out by phone, family called friends who called contacts until help was found. That help turned out to be counsellor Deborah Vanberkel, who farms alongside her dairy farmer husband at Odessa, west of Kingston.
Last year, she reached out to the Lennox & Addington Federation of Agriculture seeking a program to help at-risk farmers. That program launched in February, offering three free counselling sessions with Vanberkel for area farmers. There’s not only been local interest, but farmers asking from across the province, said Vanberkel, who earned a behavioural psychology degree and has worked as a counsellor in mental health and addictions services for the province.
When Vanberkel entered the ag industry, she was an outsider. She married into farming about 15 years ago, around the same time she started working as a counsellor on the public payroll. “I had to learn a different mindset, and understand that (farming) wasn’t a job. It was a lifestyle.” A typical day for her now is chores in the morning, a full day of counselling before evening chores, making dinner and getting the kids ready for bed.
Last year’s troubling phone call pushed her to launch Cultivate Counselling Services, a private practice focused on rural families and farmers.
She knows the difficulties farmers face, such as the burden of debt load, the never-ending chores and the stress of carrying on a multi-generational legacy. When Vanberkel talks to farmers, who are about 40 per cent of her clients, she finds a common thread. “People are completely unaware of what they’re experiencing,” she said. “They don’t know what anxiety is, what unhealthy stress looks like.”
But recognizing the difference between healthy and unhealthy stress is key to helping farmers, she said. Unhealthy stress is when your normal daily activity starts becoming a burden. If you have to make an average of five decisions a day, and it’s getting harder to do that and you only make four, and each one becomes increasingly more difficult, you can be under too much stress. Unhealthy stress can also appear as unusual irritability, restlessness, or withdrawal. A normally good-natured farmer who starts showing up for meetings grouchy and unapproachable may have something else going on, she said.
Many farmers are natural problem solvers and turn to a physical explanation. But once they’ve run the gamut of physical testing and come up empty, they don’t know where to go, she said. “When something’s wrong and you can’t even label it, what do you do?”
What good mental health looks like is a conversation that just doesn’t happen as often in farm country. Preventative measures from neighbours and friends can help as well. One of the keys to watch out for, said Vanberkel, is a marked change in someone’s behaviour. If they’re normally the type to keep their lawns immaculate and their equipment neatly stored, make a mental note if the lawns are overgrown and machinery left out. If they’re normally at every meeting of the local milk producers, make a note if they stop showing up.
But how do you ask if someone needs help? How do you ask if someone is struggling? It can be difficult at both ends. Farmers used to being successful independent businessmen can struggle with being asked and may not even know how to answer. And asking someone how they’re feeling isn’t exactly a common conversation at the Legion hall.
Talk to people normally, suggests Vanberkel. Be honest. Tell them you think they may be under a lot of stress. You can even say, “I don’t know what to say. How can I help?”
If you don’t think you know him well enough to talk to him about it, mention your concerns to someone who knows him better, like his spouse.
There’s work being done on the issue, including a Western Canada organization launching mental health first aid workshops across the country, and a program in Western Ontario called In the Know.
Farmers looking for more information on free counselling sessions can call Vanberkel directly at 613-985-7233.