Rivoire award won by farmer and therapist

The Farmer Wellness Program has expanded to five counties

Odessa dairy farmer Deborah Vanberkel recently won a national award for an initiative she started that combines both her professions – agriculture and psychotherapy.

Working with the Lennox & Addington Federation of Agriculture (as well as the Ontario Federation of Agriculture), Vanberkel started the Farmer Wellness Program as a pilot in 2019. Now a permanent program administered by LAFA, it has expanded to four other counties.

At the recent Canadian Federation of Agriculture Annual General Meeting, the virtual audience saw her receive the Brigid Rivoire Award for Champions of Mental Health in recognition of her work raising awareness, addressing stigma and supporting mental health for farmers in their local communities.

Why it matters: Creating mental health programs for farmers that speak the language of farmers can help with their acceptance.

Vanberkel was a mental health worker in the public sector before establishing her practice, Cultivate Counselling Services in Napanee.

She also runs her family farm with her husband Steve, with the help of daughters Olivia and Madison.

“I work alongside my husband on the farm,” she said in an interview. “As well, I’m very involved in the farming community, and a lot of our friends and family are farmers.”

About 10-plus years ago, she said, they began talking about issues that counselling might have helped. She was always supportive and willing to connect them with professionals, but she found few friends who made the connection.

When she asked why, she heard the same concerns. 

“‘Who’s going to understand my lifestyle, I’d have to spend hours explaining what planting is, what harvesting is, how many hours I’m in the field.

“They would feel they don’t have time to do this, which was very valid,” she said.

“Unless somebody understands that concept, how are they going to be able to empathize and recognize the struggles they face on top of everything else that’s going on?”

That started her thinking, but what solidified her intent was an incident that happened while she was transitioning to private practice. Her husband came home from a milk meeting, where (he told her) they were discussing mental health concerns after hearing of a western Ontario farmer who wanted to end his life. He was reaching out, and no one knew how to help.

The penny dropped for her right then - “literally, that moment,” she said.

“I came home, rushed through the chores and called as many people as I possibly could to ask questions, and came up with this idea.”

It’s the approach Vanberkel adopted at Cultivate Counselling, that she shared with other partners in establishing the Farmer Wellness Program - a model of service that drew on her own experiences on the farm.

“That comes from working in a barn. That comes from choring in the morning. After milking and chores and everything is done, that’s when we make appointments. And it’s easier for me because this is my off-farm job,” Vanberkel said.

“The majority of my clients are farmers. When there has been an emergency on my end, they have completely understood.”

And that works both ways, she pointed out.

“A downed cow, calving, the vacuum pump isn’t working — there’s always something that goes wrong.”

If she had to see a client at 7 a.m., so be it. If a client couldn’t get to her until 8 p.m., that was fine.

Another challenge farmers have is the pressure to get out of the barn and shower before they go to an appointment (“or, at best, change their clothes and have what I call a perfume bath”). Then they make the drive to town, maybe try to make the interruption to their chores worthwhile by hitting the Canadian Tire or Home Hardware. Then they drive home, change into work clothes and get back to work.

They may decide they can’t spare that kind of time.

While Vanberkel completely understands and does not charge a fee for cancelled appointments, she recalled her time in the public system when she often saw the mad rush farmers sometimes made to try to keep appointments because they had waited so long for one. Her heavy caseload at that time meant another long wait if an appointment had to be rescheduled.

That got her thinking about how things might be structured differently.

Flexibilty for farmers

“How do we mitigate that. How do we have the flexibility and no wait times,” she wondered.

“That’s one of the things we kind of really wanted to focus on – mitigating that wait list, being able to offer those flexible hours to accommodate.”

Along with the flexible appointment options, access to a counsellor with some background in agriculture and no long wait times, the Farmer Wellness Program also offers four counselling sessions to a farmer at no charge. This part is modelled on the concept from the business sector, the EAP or Employee Assistance Program.

Many employees have benefits, she explained, and the EAP system lets them get the specific benefits they require, such as chiropractic or dental services. Meanwhile, farmers pay out-of-pocket for what they need.

Vanberkel’s adaptation of the idea means offering four sessions at no charge. Then, if they want to continue – as 95 per cent of her clients do – they pay out of pocket.

Thanks to partnerships forged in other communities, the model has so far expanded to four counties – Lanark, Northumberland, Hastings and Prince Edward – and is in the discussion stage in others.

Satisfied that the model is well launched, she has also been making progress on the 40-milking-cow farm as her 11-year-old daughter Madison has learned how to milk during the initial COVID school shutdown.

Her nine-year-old sister Olivia may not be tall enough to milk, but she has chores of her own.

But, as Vanberkel noted, things go wrong on a farm. A University of Guelph survey of 1,100 farmers – taken before the pandemic hit - found 58 per cent had high levels of anxiety, 35 per cent met the classification for depression and 45 per cent had high stress levels. However, some 40 per cent admitted to feeling a stigma about discussing these concerns with others.

The award Vanberkel won recognizes a light at the end of that particular tunnel where the Farmer Wellness Program is offered, and she said she is excited that it has been recognized.

“So many people have dedicated their efforts to make this idea a reality, and to see the acknowledgement from others is just amazing,” she said.

“And the fact that those in the ag industry are seeking to implement it and use it speaks volumes to the need for such services.”

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