In the Know addresses gap in agriculture-based mental health training

Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario Federation of Agriculture teaming up to deliver the training program provincially

A farmer often goes about their day in relative isolation, especially this last year. 

Many will tell you there is reassuring sameness found on the farm when the outside world appears to be falling apart.

However, when mental health issues edge in and you begin to crumble, that isolation can be a prison unless you have someone ‘In the Know.’

Why it matters: Mental health issues in agriculture have long been stigmatized and minimized to the detriment of farmer health. 

In the Know is a new bilingual agriculture-based mental health literacy training program aimed at farmers, temporary foreign and local workers, and anyone in the agriculture sector, including veterinarians, truck drivers, agriculture service and sales.

Two years ago, Dr. Briana Hagen, University of Guelph post-doctoral researcher, recognized a gap in agriculture-based mental health literacy and training and began to develop a program giving participants the confidence to speak with others about mental health and assisting those struggling or in crisis. 

Dr. Briana Hagen. photo: Supplied

“We know that if you give something to farmers that works, and they have been involved from the grassroots developing it, they buy into it,” said Hagen. “Because they know it’s going to be beneficial, that word spreads like wildfire. I’m not surprised there’s been really good uptake.”

Hagen worked with her doctoral supervisor, Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, Ontario Veterinary College Associate Professor, and director of wellbeing programming to develop agriculture-specific literature.

On Jan. 20 in Manitoba, two years after her six-session pilot project in Ontario began, 55 people signed in for the inaugural four-hour virtual session. 

“I remember I sent a text message over to Andria when I was sitting in the very first session in Manitoba,” said Hagen. “I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s happening, it’s really happening.’ It’s super exciting.”

Since then, Manitoba has run approximately half-a-dozen sessions with the same number of participants, setting them up to reach their goal of teaching 500 agriculture sector people in six months. 

Several other provinces, including Ontario, are currently training their mental health facilitators to launch In The Know sometime in March. 

Jones-Bitton said the standardized training program is free for use across Canada with different delivery and partnership configurations available, such as online or in-person.  

Ontario teamed up with the Canadian Mental Health Association-Ontario (CMHA-O) 26 branches and the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) to roll out the program. 

Trillium Mutual Insurance provided financial support to the CMHA-O to help deliver the program in rural Ontario.

Recognizing not all CMHA-O branches would have access to a professional possessing agricultural background, it was decided to train several OFA representatives to present to the program in tandem.

“The language and culture in the agriculture community are quite unique, and it’s really important the people delivering the programming understand the realities of the agricultural community, and the unique stressors that they may face and challenges that they may face,” said Michael Feenstra, special assistant to the CEO CMHA-O. 

Creating new links with organizations

Jones-Bitton said increasing the bridges between the CMHA, rural Ontario, and the OFA will create more mental health access, not just for farmers or farm-related triggers, but for all of rural Ontario. 

Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton. photo: Supplied

“We worked with a fabulous team of stakeholders from across all avenues of agriculture and mental health . . . evaluated the program to make sure it works because we know no farmer wants their time wasted,” she said. “Now this partnership with CMHA – it’s so exciting to see the program in such strong capable hands bringing it out across the province. I’m thrilled.”

Feenstra said training sessions for facilitators are in February for the 16 districts serving predominantly agriculture and rural areas with the public launch of In The Know scheduled for March. 

“Again, that’s where the partnership with the OFA is really key,” he said. “They have the ability to broadcast to their 38,000 members across the province when and where these sessions are happening. We’re also connecting our local CMHA branches with their local OFA representatives.”

Ideally, the two groups will cover all aspects of the district and social media platforms to alert the local agriculture sector of session dates, he said.

When In the Know was being crafted, Hagen discovered three challenges for farmers to access programming are: time, finances and geography. 

Support from CMHA and the OFA removed the finance barrier, and COVID-19 expedited the online launch and removed the usual industry constraints, but not without some finessing. 

“It’s required some additional steps,” said Jones-Bitton. “(But) it will also be great to eventually get in-person training again as well for all the social benefits that come with that.”

About the author

Reporter

Diana Martin

Diana Martin has spent more than two decades in the media sector, first as a photojournalist and then evolving into a multi-media journalist. Five years ago she left mainstream media and brought her skills to the agriculture sector. She owns a small farm in Amaranth, Ont.

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