Research aims to build knowledge to inform more effective mental health service delivery in rural Ontario
By Jackie Clark
“You can hear it in farmers voices that it’s been a stressful season,” Peggy Brekveld, president of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), told Farms.com.
“Some are making significant decisions about where their farming future is and if their farm is going to be able to survive the season,” she explained.
With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the isolation and stress of farmers, it’s never been more important for the agricultural community in Ontario to be talking about mental health.
Earlier this month, the government of Ontario announced over $430,000 in funding for three initiatives supporting the mental health of farmers and other rural residents.
“These projects will provide more data on farmer and rural mental health in Ontario to ensure available supports meet unique community needs,” said an August 12 release from the province.
The initiatives include community and workplace supports for international agricultural workers in the province.
“Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers will research existing mental health services and supports that are tailored to needs of international agricultural workers employed on Ontario farms and recommend strategies to improve mental health and well-being services and psychosocial supports available to agri-food workers,” said the release.
Other research receiving funding includes a survey on farmer mental health and agricultural literacy of mental health professionals conducted by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and Dr. Briana Hagan from the University of Guelph, as well as a survey on mental health impacts of disruptive events in rural Ontario conducted by Dr. Leith Deacon, also from the University of Guelph.
“Both projects aim to improve service delivery,” said an August 17 release from the University of Guelph.
“In order to ensure that the services that are available reflect the needs of the community, locally collected, relevant, and valid data is the one of the most important parts,” Deacon said in the release.
Jones-Bitton and Hagen’s survey will “augment our understanding of the experience of farmer mental health in Ontario, including the issues and experiences associated with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Jones-Bitton said. The information “can be used for priority planning among local and provincial organizations, as well as longer-term training and research needs.”
Filling in knowledge gaps is a key priority when considering mental health in rural Ontario. In government consultation, obstacles cited by participants “include lack of access to mental health services in their communities, the lack of understanding of agricultural literacy by mental health providers, ongoing stigma around mental health issues, significant costs for existing resources, and the need for more emphasis on prevention,” according to the August 12 release.
“Research dollars on mental health are important,” Brekveld said. “They are part of the way that we can demonstrate a need in our rural areas and a very specific way to answer the needs. We do need the scientific-based research that these studies will provide.”
However, “we also know that we need feet-on-the-ground,” she added. That includes mental health services for farmers and mental health professionals serving rural areas.
“We need solutions that respond to specific needs of an industry that is very unique, and certainly deals with stressors in different ways that maybe some of the general population would,” Brekveld explained.
OFA hopes this investment in research will lead to more practical mental health assistance for farmers in the future.
“We’re continuing to have those conversations with the provincial and federal governments about the importance of mental health resources,” Brekveld said.
She also cited the importance of continuing to break down stigma, so farmers know “it’s okay not to be okay,” she said. “The more often people hear that, the more normal it becomes. Sometimes you need tools to fix a machine, sometimes you need tools to help you cope with stress, and it’s okay to access those things, there’s no shame in it.”
OFA hope to work with it’s membership across the province to continue building safe environments for farmers to talk about mental health.