Listowel event results in new online mental health resource

The initiative started with the local agricultural society

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From a local food fundraiser to a professionally produced website and videos, a group of Listowel-area farmers have turned a small grant from RBC Royal Bank into a go-to resource for anyone in mid-western Ontario’s agricultural community struggling with mental illness.

Why it matters: Much has occurred over the past five years to lessen the stigma of mental health in Canadian agriculture, but many farmers don’t know where to turn in times of emotional strain.

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The Farmers’ Toolbox (thefarmerstoolbox.ca), created through the work and fundraising of the Listowel Fair’s ambassador committee, launched in early October. It features a list and links to mental health resources available to farmers, opportunities to take part in mental health first aid training provided by the Guelph-based Life Voice company, and a pair of videos about farm-related mental health issues.

Also as part of the project, the ambassador committee established a bursary for graduates of Listowel District Secondary School, for a student pursuing post-secondary opportunities in a mental health-related field.

The initiative began with the ambassador committee being chosen for an RBC Community Grant in 2018. According to committee member and Listowel-area farmer Alanna Coneybeare, “when we were brainstorming how we should make use of the grant money, it became quite clear early on… that our community definitely is underserviced in terms of mental health supports.”

It was decided to host a fundraising event, with farmer mental health as a focus, and use the money raised to ease the effects of mental illness in the community. Area hog farmer Stewart Skinner, a one-time political candidate and present-day social media and community newspaper commentator who has been open about his own mental health struggles, agreed to speak at the event.

The Dinner on Tremaine was born. In June, 2019, the busy street next to the Listowel Fairgrounds was closed to traffic, lighting was strung from different-coloured tractors situated at four corners, a stage was rolled into place and table elegantly set, and the community gathered for an outdoor dinner and entertainment.

“When we described the fundraiser to people… (they) were really excited about the project,” recalled Coneybeare, adding the inclusion of local food, drink, and talent were strong drawing cards. But they certainly had no inkling that they would raise — through ticket sales, sponsorships, and especially donations — more than $13,000.

“Once we realized how successful it had been, then we were able to dream a bit bigger.”

The website’s videos use agriculture community members in the video. Coneybeare says that “really puts a face to the conversation” and destigmatizes the topic for their target audience.

The Farmers’ Toolbox group didn’t know at the beginning if farmers would be willing to talk about it for the video, but “it turns out that our community is quite willing to share their feelings, if they’re given the right opportunity.”

Realistically, though, they see the website as a stopgap until a wider range of mental health services are made available in rural Ontario, and especially in farming communities like Listowel and North Perth.

For now, they hope to continue fundraising, at least so they can continue co-ordinating and paying a portion of the costs for participants in the mental health first aid sessions.

About the author

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Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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