Deborah Vanberkel is a dairy farmer and a psychotherapist
By Diego Flammini
An Ontario dairy farmer received a national award for her work within the mental health sector.
Deborah Vanberkel, who farms with her husband Steve in Odessa, Ont., won the Canadian Federation of Agriculture’s (CFA) Brigid Rivoire Award for Champions of Agricultural Mental Health during the CFA’s annual general meeting in February.
CFA has presented the annual award since 2019 to an individual or organization working to raise awareness, address misconceptions and support mental health for farmers. The award is named after Brigid Rivoire, a former executive director of the CFA who passed away in 2017.
Vanberkel didn’t even know she was up for the honour.
Deborah Vanberkel/OFA photo
“I wasn’t even made aware that I was nominated for the award, so everything came as a total shock,” she told Farms.com. “The nomination alone was extremely flattering.”
Vanberkel, also a registered psychotherapist, won for her work with the Farmer Wellness Program she helped launch with the Lennox & Addington Federation of Agriculture.
She approached the local federation of ag in 2018 with her idea.
“Being a part of the mental health and addictions world for so long, I realized there were no services to the agricultural community and I wanted to see if we could create something,” she said.
The Farmer Wellness Program pilot launched in 2019. It provides users with four counselling sessions at no charge, flexible appointment options and access to a professional with a background in agriculture.
Prior to the program’s launch, producers were reluctant to seek out professional help because a counsellor wouldn’t understand the unique challenges farmers face.
“I would encourage people to access counselling and they’d say, ‘who is going to understand my lifestyle? How am I supposed to explain planting?’” Vanberkel said. “It’s a great point because (farmers) would likely have to spend most of the session explaining these kinds of topics.”
Conversations surrounding mental health in ag have come a long way but there’s more work to be done, Vanberkel said.
“Farmers are using these kinds of services. I’ve got a very large caseload from people across Canada right now,” she said. “I want there to be a point where farmers talk about mental health like they talk about the weather.”
Since the Farmer Wellness Program has launched, it has expanded to four additional counties with more possible in the future.