Mental health course for farmers aims to go nationwide

The program, called In the Know, is a four-hour course that producers can take to better understand mental health, as well as improve their confidence in talking about it with others. | Jeremy Simes photo

QUEBEC CITY — Researchers have developed a program that aims to improve mental health knowledge for farmers, with plans of possibly taking it nationwide.

The program, called In the Know, is a four-hour course that producers can take to better understand mental health, as well as improve their confidence in talking about it with others.

It was developed by researchers from the University of Guelph, Ont., and was recently shared at the annual Canadian Agricultural Safety Association conference in Quebec City.

“We wanted to give farmers the language and confidence to talk about mental health with someone, allowing them to ask if they are doing OK,” said Briana Hagen, who worked on the project and is a PhD candidate with the university.

The program is the result of the national farmer mental health survey, in which many of the 1,100 participants said they experienced high levels of stress, anxiety, burnout and low resilience.

On top of that, Hagen and her supervisor, Andria Jones-Bitton, undertook 73 in-depth interviews with farmers to figure out what factors contribute to poor mental health.

Following those results, the researchers gathered with their stakeholder group on mental health to figure out how to address these challenges, eventually coming up with In the Know.

They piloted the program six times in Ontario, reaching about 100 people in the agriculture industry.

A farmer who has experience and knowledge of mental health delivered the program. It was done in person and conducted in groups with fewer than 20 people.

Participants learned about mental illness and mental wellness, stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide, resilience and coping.

Researchers collected survey data before and after the program to determine whether participants had actually improved their mental health knowledge.

The results are preliminary, but they indicate that the program worked, Hagen said.

For instance, 31 percent of respondents had some knowledge of mental health before taking the program. Once they completed it, that figure jumped to 50 percent.

When asked about their mental health knowledge three months later, 58 percent of people said they had some mental health knowledge.

Confidence levels also improved, the survey indicated.

Before In the Know, 28 percent of respondents had some or a lot of confidence about discussing mental health. After, 68 percent had confidence. Three months later, 56 percent said they had confidence.

Furthermore, before taking the program, 52 percent said they would be very or extremely confident in being comfortable with speaking to others about their mental health. At the end of the program, 70 percent said they would be confident. Three months later, that score increased to 76 percent.

As well, prior to In the Know, 58 percent of participants said they strongly disagreed that a person could be snapped out of suicidal thoughts. That figure jumped to 66 percent after the program and 73 percent three months later.

“Broadly, there were improvements pre- and post-training when people took In the know,” Hagen said. “Overall, mental health knowledge increased and remained increased, as well as the willingness to help others increased and the confidence in speaking to others about their mental health increased.”

She said researchers are now going to do statistical tests on the results to ensure they are significant.

Hagen said many producers don’t want a highly detailed program.

“They want confidence and language so they can have discussions with family members, neighbours and farmers in a way that doesn’t make the person they are speaking with feel uncomfortable.”

In the future, Hagen said they hope to take the program nation-wide. As well, they would like to develop an online version.

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