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New mental health resource for Manitoba farmers coming

New mental health resource for Manitoba farmers coming

The Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program launches on March 1

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer

Manitoba farmers will have access to a new mental health resource beginning next month.

The Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program (MFWP) will launch March 1 and provide six free sessions per individual.

“It provides no-cost counselling to farmers should they need it,” Gerry Friesen, a former producer, past chair of Manitoba Pork and founding member of the MFWP, told “In Manitoba we have the Farm, Rural & Northern Support stress line, and our program takes that one step further.”

Farmers can begin signing up for sessions on the organization’s site by the end of February. MFWP is still securing counselors and other supports, Friesen said.

Friesen has experienced mental health issues in his life.

The professionally trained and certified counsellor and mediator grew up on his family’s grain and turkey farm near Wawanesa, Man.

He and his brother, Bob, a former president of the Canadian Federation of Agriculture, took over the family farm in 2004. They opted out of grain production and added hogs to go along with the turkey flock.

In August 2005, a motorcycle accident left Bob with fractured vertebrae, broken ribs and a concussion. This left Gerry to look after the entire farm while his brother recovered. The brothers got out of farming in 2007.

Gerry Friesen
Gerry Friesen

It was while doing work with the Manitoba Farm Mediation Board in 2004 that Gerry’s body told him something wasn’t right.

“I was working with a farm couple experiencing financial challenges and as we’re sitting there, I felt my heart do some interesting palpitations,” he said. “I lost my breath and thought I was having a heart attack. It passed quickly but it started happening more and more, so I went to my doctor to find out what’s going on.”

Friesen’s doctor diagnosed him with anxiety and depression.

Friesen, now 62, turned to alcohol at the time to help him cope with his illnesses.

“Sometimes when we don’t want to believe what we’re hearing, we turn to other means of dealing with it,” he said.

Friesen took control of his condition and started medication.

Understanding that mental health is a long-term journey is important to one’s recovery, he said.

“It’s going to be a journey for the rest of your life,” he said. “So, you’ve got to be proactive in dealing with (mental health). It’s not the easiest thing to figure out, and when I look back, I would’ve loved to have something like the Manitoba Farmer Wellness Program.”

Other jurisdictions have farmer wellness programs in place.

Prince Edward Island, for example, has the Farmer Assistance Program.

And Ontario has the Farmer Wellness Initiative.

Seeing these kinds of programs available is a sign the conversations about mental health are improving, Friesen said.

“I’ve been asked multiple times in the past to tell my story and do question and answer sessions with farmers, knowing full well no one is going to ask a question because of the stigma attached to mental health,” he said. “But I did a workshop two years ago and there were people who got up and asked specific questions about themselves. The fact these conversations are starting to happen publicly is so refreshing.”

And the work that the ag community does now is laying the foundation for mental health conversations in the future.

The definition of mental health is already changing, and younger generations accept that mental health is part of overall health, Friesen said.

“I’m old enough to remember that if you were struggling it meant you weren’t working hard enough, getting up early enough or you don’t have enough faith,” Friesen said. “My kids’ generation is already dealing with this differently, and I can only imagine their kids will be even better at dealing with mental health.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health challenges, has compiled a list of Canadian mental health and suicide prevention resources.

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