CAP funding launches two new ag mental health programs

A $7-million Canadian Agriculture Partnership (CAP) investment will fund development of two new multi-year mental health initiatives specialized in agriculture. 

The Guardians Network and a program modelled after the Farmer Wellness program will be designed to provide farm families across Ontario with free counselling services and connect at-risk farmers with tailored support and resources. 

“We all know Ontario farmers and their families have faced significant challenges as a result of the ongoing pandemic,” said Michael Tibollo, associate minister of mental health and addictions. “The isolation, the economic challenges, anxiety and depression have all led to and had major impacts on the mental health of them and their families.” 

Why it matters: Programs will be designed to meet the unique mental health needs of farmers and farm families, providing better support.

The CAP investment will be used to ensure farmers and their families have faster, straightforward access to mental health and addictions supports to meet their unique needs, when and where they need them, Tibollo added. 

“The farming community has demonstrated great strength and resilience throughout the pandemic,” said federal agriculture minister Marie-Claude Bibeau. “But mental health challenges often go unseen. If you are struggling, the first step is to reach out because you are not alone in facing these challenges.”

“The farmer’s most important resource is the farmer,” added Peggy Brekveld, Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) president. “Sometimes we need to be reminded of that, to put our oxygen masks on first before we reach out and help others, our families and think about our land and our livestock.” 

Brekveld said the need for mental health programs has been on the radar for a long time, but the biggest eye-opener occurred during the 2017 OFA annual general meeting when both mental health sessions had standing room only. 

“I think farmers themselves, our members and the whole farming community knows how important this is,” she said. “We have counties that have had significant (suicide) events, and we want to see and be able to move the needle and make a difference in people’s lives before the crisis happens.” 

The Guardians Network is a suicide prevention initiative designed to build a network of volunteers trained in mental health literacy to identify farmers at risk and connect them to the appropriate resources. The Canadian Mental Health Association —Ontario Division will deliver the service, adding to the In the Know programming already offered. 

“The expansion of this important wellness program and introduction of a suicide prevention network will protect and enhance the mental well-being of farmers and the farm community,” said Camille Quenneville, CEO of CMHA Ontario. “The Guardians Network and the new Farmers Wellness initiative will provide a much-needed suite of wrap-around services to support this special population.” 

The Farmer Wellness initiative will provide farmers and their families with free, province-wide counselling, in French and English, with licensed professionals through a 1-800 phone line. Modelled after the Farmer Wellness initiative launched in 2019 by psychotherapist and dairy farmer Deborah Vanberkel, an advisory group including members from accredited Ontario farm organizations will support the program. 

“We’ve been able to expand (Farmer Wellness) to six counties during a pandemic, which is, in itself, quite an accomplishment,” said Vanberkel. “It speaks to the need, the demand that farmers have been asking for this, not just in Ontario but across Canada. 

“The fact that OMAFRA, OFA and CMHA have recognized this is needed and wanting to create strategies and programs that are dedicated is unprecedented.” 

Lisa Thompson, Ontario Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, said the pressures of the last 20 months had a significant effect on farmers’ mental health. 

“That’s why our government is providing the necessary funding for these programs and is committed to doing everything we can to help address these challenges and support mental health in our farming communities,” she said.

The programs are expected to launch in early 2022 and run for three years into the government’s 2024-25 fiscal year. Then Thompson said she hopes to have budget funds secured to maintain them.