Kitchener-Waterloo

U of G researchers design program to improve farmers' mental health

A new program developed by researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College and the University of Guelph aims to improve the mental health of farmers in the province.

Previous research shows farmers face high levels of stress and worry about stigma

A farmer cuts hay on a farm near Maryhill, Ont., on May 30, 2016. (Kate Bueckert/CBC News)

A new program developed by researchers at the Ontario Veterinary College and the University of Guelph aims to improve the mental health of farmers in the province.

The program, called In the Know, launched last week and is run by the Canadian Mental Health Association.

It was developed by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and post-doctoral researcher Dr. Briana Hagen, both from the university's Department of Population Medicine.

Jones-Bitton previously surveyed farmers and found that 45 per cent of those who responded had high stress levels, 58 per cent had varying levels of anxiety, and 35 per cent had depression.

Farmers also reported emotional exhaustion and cynicism at rates of 38 and 43 per cent, respectively, the survey found. 

"There is... a really heavy workload and work hours that our research participants have described as almost being tied to the farm," Jones-Bitton told CBC News, adding that farmers also face serious financial pressures.

"Some of these farms may have been in the family for generations, and there's a real pressure there to maintain it."

Farmers are also facing new sources of stress, she said, such as public mistrust of farmers and the food they grow.  

Jones-Bitton's survey also found that 40 per cent of respondents said they would feel uneasy getting professional help because of what people might think. 

Another 31 per cent said seeking professional help could stigmatize a person's life. Fewer than half believed there was adequate mental health support from the industry.

"I thought [resilience] would be quite high amongst farmers," Jones-Bitton said. "But resilience is actually that ability to withstand chronic stress and perhaps even bounce back higher from it. And so just because our farmers are continuing to get the job done, it doesn't mean that these chronic stresses aren't taking a toll on themselves, their mental health, their families, their farms."

The goal of In the Know is to encourage farmers to seek the help they need, according to a news release from the University of Guelph.

The program is running in 18 agricultural areas in Ontario and is delivered by either a mental health professional with agricultural experience or by a mental health professional with a co-facilitator from the agricultural sector. 

The program was first introduced in Manitoba.

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