Farmers team up to put mental illness stigma out to pasture

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WATCH: Balancing a three-year battle with cancer and running his farm near Willowbrook, Sask. led Mike Nielson to his own battle with his identity and mental illness – Nov 20, 2018

Once drowned out by the noise and rush of the agricultural industry, the conversation surrounding farmers and mental health is growing louder than ever.

“Rural communities have been somewhat overlooked,” Canadian Federation of Agriculture president Ron Bonnett said. “They don’t have the same resources as urban centres, and more specifically, agriculture producers have unique circumstances on their farm.”

“We deal with weather, we deal with disease, we deal with the fact we can’t walk away from our job. Our job is where we live. I think that’s why sometimes you can’t get a timeout at the farm level.”

WATCH: Government addresses measures to help mental health of farmers

No one knows that better than Mike Nielson.

Balancing a three-year battle with cancer and running his farm near Willowbrook, Sask. with his wife, Joanne, led to his own battle with his identity and mental illness.

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Now, he’s advocating for more provincial supports and for others to speak up.

“I thought my life was going along just fine,” Nielson said. “Regardless of who you are, a series of events can take place that compromises your mental health. I realized that if it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.”

He credits online follow-up counselling and wellness courses for much of his mental recovery following the end of his medical treatment.

“It showed we’re not alone. Everybody has their challenges. There are people there willing to help you deal with it. It’s important to keep that in mind if you’re struggling.”

Agribition has been steadily increasing its coverage of mental health in agriculture in recent years.

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At a Tuesday workshop, roughly two dozen farmers gathered to learn more about strategies for change, identifying warning signs and sharing their stories in a safe place.

“You just realize you can’t do it all yourself when you’re trying to make changes,” Melfort-area farmer Alan Lawrence said. “I came here to try and take a little bit of a break for myself after feeling like I’ve become burnt out at the farm. You get busy with four kids and a large farm.”

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“There’s different reactions,” Joanne Nielson said. “Some people will shy away. They don’t want to touch the topic. Other people say ‘my goodness, I’m so glad you’re talking about it.'”

READ MORE: Canadian farmers open up about mental health: ‘They’re not the only ones’

That growing conversation has also spurred a number of groups to team up with 4-H Canada to launch a two-year mental and physical health program for young people in rural areas starting in the spring of 2019.

The first year will center around creating resources for struggling youth and teaching people to recognize signs of distress, followed by a year of focus on physical well-being and nutrition.

“It’s paramount that young people know how to navigate the challenges they face so they can succeed. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving,” 4-H Canada CEO Shannon Benner said.

Farm Credit Canada, UFA Co-operative, Corteva Agriscience Agriculture Division of DowDuPont and Cargill are putting more than $150,000 towards the Healthy Living Initiative.

Bonnett hopes the program will help young people practice self-care before they’re adults.

“For all too long it’s been, especially with farmers, ‘suck it up, buttercup. Get better yourself’. That doesn’t necessarily work.”

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Speaking from his own experience, he has high hopes for the plan.

“In the early 1980s, looking back and dealing with those high interest rates, I was very close to full-blown depression. I was lucky though. We had an agricultural representative in our area who identified five or six young farmers, brought us together and gave us financial management training, but more importantly, he got us talking to each other.”

While progress may take time, the group is glad to see the stigma around mental illness being put out to pasture.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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