LISTOWEL — It’s often a taboo subject when farmers gather at the local coffee shop.
But an agricultural group in Perth County is reaching out to farmers and rural residents wrestling with stress and mental health problems.
The Farmers’ Toolbox program was launched in October by the Listowel Agricultural Society and covers Perth and Wellington counties. The “toolbox” includes an online portal (www.thefarmerstoolbox.com) listing contacts for help lines and counseling services, a video featuring local farmers talking about mental health issues, in-person introductory training sessions on mental health and a bursary for local high school students pursuing a career in mental health studies.
A study done by the University of Guelph submitted to the parliamentary agriculture committee found that 35 per cent of farmers have symptoms of depression, about 45 per cent suffer from high stress and 58 per cent suffer with anxiety.
Alanna Coneybeare, a volunteer with the Listowel Agricultural Society said provincial and regional help lines and counseling are available but the services are “fragmented” and remote from the community.
She said discussion of mental health problems is often stigmatized in rural communities “Asking for help can be a sign of weakness. You are supposed to have a stiff upper lip and take whatever is thrown at us. But it doesn’t mean we can’t ask for help along the way,” said Coneybeare, whose family runs a poultry, dairy and cash crop operation south of Listowel.
She said there was a perceived need for a locally-based platform that was simple, easy-to-use and focused on farmers and rural residents. “It helps them feel like their needs are being heard better when there is a resource that is more local,” she said.
Startup funding for the project came from a community grant from the Royal Bank and an additional $13,000 in funding was raised from a Listowel community dinner. The organizers have applied for a grant from Perth County that will fund a mail-out to rural households that lists phone numbers and resources.
Coneybeare said farmers have always dealt with stress caused by the weather or market conditions but new factors such as social media and changing consumer demands has exerted more pressure.
The professionally-produced video on the Farmers’ Toolbox website includes an interview with Listowel dairy farmer Steve Dolson.
Dolson said farming can always be stressful, but the COVID-19 pandemic put extra pressure on farm families with young children because parents were obliged to home-school in addition to their regular farm and off-farm work.
Dolson said the farming community is gradually becoming more open to talking about mental health issues. He said the fundraising dinner was a launching pad in his area.
“Farmers came to me in the couple of months afterward saying ‘I’m so glad you guys did that’ because they were realizing people in their circle were having issues,” he said.
Dolson and his wife Karen also participated in the Farmers’ Toolbox, two-day training sessions dubbed “First Aid Courses” in mental health. He said discussing the issue with folks he knew was a good learning experience. “You have to make a point of connecting with people who you think may be going through a tough time. Spend some time and listen,” he said.
Dolson said getting away from the farm to relax on vacation is especially tough on dairy farmers because of the twice-a-day milking regimen.
Dolson said he and his wife made a point of taking a one-week vacation with their children every winter by hiring and training someone to tend the farm well ahead of time. He said farmers have to be willing to give up control for a while.
“Then you go away and don’t worry about it,” he said.
Coneybeare said there has been a good response since the Farmers’ Toolbox web portal was launched with thousands of page views. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive,” she said.