The Importance of Peer Support and Inclusion in Rural Mental Health: Meghan South

The Stigma-Free Society recently had the opportunity to speak to Meghan South, a recent participant of our Rural Mental Health Peer Support training program, who shared with us about her experience living in rural Saskatchewan and working in the field of mental health and substance use recovery. She shared with us about her experience with the peer support program and living and working in a rural community.

First of all, can you tell us about your background in rural mental wellness and your training in mental health support?

I am a woman who has lived her entire life in the rural province of Saskatchewan. My training in rural mental wellness involves a combination of professional training, lived experience, and activism. Professionally I have a background in Early Childhood Education and worked with special needs children in my 20’s, this experience involved being extremely compassionate and supportive to young children with diverse backgrounds and needs. In my 30’s I have shifted more towards mental health recovery support for individuals with substance abuse. I volunteer in online communities providing peer support to others, and I am currently learning to write content for mental health publications. More recently, I have gotten involved in various projects that support mental wellness. These projects include advocating for mental health awareness through arts, writing, song, and dance.

Why do you think peer support is so valuable as a mental health care option? How can peer support be better integrated into mainstream services?

Peer support is a critical asset to long term mental wellness. Thankfully organizations like the Stigma-Free Society and their Rural Mental Wellness program are helping to bring more awareness to the need to bring Peer Support to rural communities. When I was early in my recovery journey before the pandemic, I had plenty of support from the professional community, but often I longed for people who understood what I was personally going through. Peer support helps bridge the gap between personal experiences and the relationships people have with healthcare providers. Peer support doesn’t just serve as an added support for those seeking mental health services in healthcare, peer support is also being brought into corporate companies and is being used as an added resource to help support other professionals as well. By addressing the reality that mental health is something people from all walks of life face on a day to day basis, we can better integrate peer support and eliminate the stigma and biases that still prevent so many Canadians from accessing the support they need.

How do you think current health care standards and policies should be improved in Canada? Particularly in rural communities?

I am currently working with organizations locally and nationally to advocate for higher standards within healthcare policies. We recently met and discussed different insights to be shared with policymakers to raise awareness about critical issues including topics such as better ways to integrate mental health and addiction related issues. By bringing awareness to the challenges and having these open discussions, we can help improve health care policies. Rural communities are particularly suffering, we are seeing mental health issues marketed as a crisis with little solutions. People struggle to find counselors they can trust, free services are impossible to access due to long waitlists. We need more accountability within the policies to not only ensure that people reaching out for help get access to quality resources, but also to eliminate the racism and discrimination many individuals face when receiving help.

Can you talk about how mental health care in Canada is changing and how you envision the future of mental health in Canada?

Mental health care in Canada is evolving a lot recently. We are seeing more resources available for groups with particular needs such as folks from the LGBTQIA2S+ community, Indigenous peoples, and black Canadians, to name a few. Because our country has such a diverse cultural population we need to make sure each group is represented and treated with respect. We also need to look at ways to better integrate medical care with holistic approaches. Mental health isn’t just a diagnosis or a symptom it’s a way of life, and by better integrating tools like meditation and yoga with medical care, Canadians will have a much more well rounded sense of wellbeing. We are also recognizing the importance of introducing trauma-informed education and practices into communities on a more mainstream level.

This will help health care professionals to better support their patients, and will give people a better sense of their own awareness around their own mental health. Trauma informed education will also help reduce the stigma many people have about getting help.

If you would like to get in touch with Meghan, you can view her LinkedIn profile HERE.

 

Farmers and Rural Mental Wellness

I am a second year PhD student in the school of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, where my research focuses on the relationships between soil quality and farmers’ health. This research is informed by a twenty year career working with the BC provincial public service (in six different ministries), and by more recent work on a national policy scan for rural economic development, alongside advisory roles with the National Farmers’ Union mental health working group, the Pacific Regional Society of Soil Science, and the Sandown Centre for Regenerative Agriculture, among others.

In the summer of 2021, I had the pleasure of visiting 36 farms in rural communities on Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and the Sunshine Coast. I visited these farms to collect soil samples as part of my PhD research, and to talk to farmers about the relationships between soil quality and farmers’ health.

Soil health keeps me up at night. I worry about soil erosion, brought on by the overuse of practices like tillage and the application of synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. I worry about declining biodiversity, water quality and food security, especially in the face of COVID-19 pandemic and the increasing frequency of extreme climate events. I worry about what is happening to the mind-numbing variety of fascinating organisms that cycle nutrients and hold water in the soil. But more than anything, I worry about the health of farmers responsible for making decisions about what they grow and how it is grown.

Most farmers live, work and play in rural communities, where social connection is critical to physical, mental and economic well being. With a decline in the number of farmers over time, and increasing pressure on food systems, the mental health of farmers is of national concern, identified in a recent federal Standing Senate Committee report. Recent research by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton and Dr. Briana Hagen (below) indicates that farmers are suffering, and that the pandemic only made things worse.

Why are farmers uniquely susceptible to stress and mental health pressures? The reasons appear to be complex and systemic in nature. With the mass movement away from the farm after the second world war, farms became larger, rural communities became smaller, and many of these people and places became invisible to the outside world. Urban areas continue to rely on rural areas, through the extraction of resources such as timber, water, and minerals. Current policies tend to focus on large-scale, provincial level priorities, which means that the rewards of this bounty are often not returned to rural areas. This can compound a feeling of rural isolation, and a sentiment of being left behind.

This sentiment is backed by evidence. Most small-scale farmers are virtually invisible to current policy frameworks. Despite occurring in rural areas, a recent policy review identifies that provincial and territorial strategies, plans and programmes related to natural resources, energy, climate and agriculture almost universally ignore opportunities for rural economic development. In agriculture, the vast majority of programming and funding is designed for the large-scale farmers that support global markets. The National Farmers Union Resources website shows that mental health resources for farmers are piecemeal, information focused, and treat only the symptoms of broader systemic issues.

Farmers, particularly those in rural areas, are on the front lines of climate change, as their homes and livelihoods are tied directly to the land and unpredictable economic and environmental conditions. Where farmers live is where they work and where they play. Most farmers operate under significant debt burdens and face pressures of legacy. Margins are tight, risks are complex, and costs are increasing everywhere. Yet farmers are some of the most innovative and intelligent people I know.

Most of the farmers I visited for field work managed small scale, diverse operations on less than 10 acres, growing products destined for local markets, CSAs, restaurants, friends and family. These farmers were former chiropractors, nurses, teachers, musicians, artists, sociologists, biologists, foresters, computer network designers, dental hygienists, real estate agents, architects and counsellors, among others. I could not have been more impressed with the level of intelligence and curiosity that these individuals brought to our conversations and their work. Their primary interest in the research I was undertaking often stemmed from a desire “not to make things worse.”

When I asked about the sources of stress they experienced day to day, the primary responses (perhaps not surprisingly) were financial, time/task management, labour and isolation. Despite working full-time, most farmers didn’t earn a salary, and farming alone did not cover the costs of running the farm, or living expenses. Someone is making money on expensive food, but it doesn’t seem to be the farmers. There are virtually no financial supports for farmers working at the small scale, especially for those looking to transition to climate-friendly soil building practices.

There is a mismatch between current policy objectives and farmers’ objectives. The current framework could be designed to improve environmental, economic, and social wellbeing that leverages the unique strengths and opportunities in unique rural communities. Small scale farmers are deeply integrated into local systems, and are critical partners in the path to climate adaptation and rural development.

Guest Contributor: Brook Hayes

For more information about Brooke’s research, you can visit her project website, or reach her by email at: brookehayes@uvic.ca

Additional Resources:

· Government of Canada Standing Select Committee Report: Released in 2019, “Mental Health: A Priority for our Farmers” report outlines 10 recommendations for attention.
· National Farmers’ Union Consolidated List of Mental Health Resources specifically for farmers, organized by region.
· National Survey of Farmer Mental Health: Conducted by Dr. Andria Jones-Britton in 2018 involving over 1,000 producers across Canada. Follow-up Assessment in 2022.
· Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms: Includes a media kit, a report on mental health, and farm business management.
· Rooted in Strength: Provides an overview and assessment tool to support famers to identity and manage sources of stress and access mental health resources.
· Pan-Canadian Scan of Policies for Rural Places: Released in 2022

Farm Management & The Mental Health of Farmers

The Stigma-Free Society recently spoke with Heather Watson of Farm Management Canada to speak about the correlation between farm management and the mental health of farmers and other agricultural workers. We asked Heather about farmer stress and the results of the Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms report.

Can you tell us about Farm Management Canada’s research that connects mental health with good farm business management, and how your team initially became interested in rural mental wellness?

For 30 years, Farm Management Canada has been dedicated to helping Canada’s farmers achieve sustainable growth and prosperity by developing, delivering and connecting farmers with the resources, tools and information to advance their farm business skills and practices.

Farmer mental health came into our purview after hearing Dr. David Posen (“Doc Calm”) speak about the effects of prolonged stress at a young farmer conference in 2018. He spoke about how much of the stress we feel is caused by uncertainty and worry, and how prolonged stress can cause us to lose sleep, isolate ourselves from family and friends, become quick-tempered and have difficulty prioritizing and making informed decisions. We quickly realized the detrimental effects prolonged stress could have on effective farm business management, and wanted to learn more. In 2019, we embarked on a national study to explore the connection between mental health and farm business management and how one could impact the other. We published our results in 2020 in a report called Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms, which included twenty-four recommendations to help support farmer mental health. Since publishing our results, farmer mental health has become a mainstay in our mandate and programming.

Our study results confirmed that Canada’s farmers are stressed. 75 percent of Canada’s farmers reported being moderate to highly stressed. Furthermore, the unpredictability of the agricultural sector, workload pressures and lack of time, and financial pressures were cited by farmers as the greatest causes of stress.

However, there is good news. Farm business management practices like planning ahead has a positive effect on farmer mental health – in fact, 88 percent of farmers who follow a written business plan say it has contributed to their peace of mind. These farmers are also more likely to adopt effective coping mechanisms when faced with stressful situations and are more likely to reach out for support.

What role does uncertainty (financial, environmental, etc.) play in rural mental health struggles?

Uncertainty plays a huge role in farmer mental health. Farmers are faced with incredible uncertainty brought by weather, market fluctuations affecting input costs and market prices, and changes in policy and regulations – much of which is outside of the farmers’ control. This feeling of helplessness in the face of the unknown is the number one contributor to farmer stress and mental health. On the bright side, business management practices like planning help farmers reduce uncertainty by assessing potential scenarios and putting measures in place to reduce risk and uncertainty, while gaining confidence and a greater sense of control over outcomes.

How do farm business practices help manage stress and improve mental health?

Farm business practices, like planning, facilitate important processes on the farm to assess risk and potential outcomes, helping farm managers put measures in place to reduce uncertainty (and the stress caused by uncertainty), take calculated risks and seize new opportunities. This not only creates greater peace of mind, but also greater confidence in decision-making. Our other research also shows that farmers who adopt proven business practices also realize greater profitability and prosperity. And financial health helps support mental health.

Can you explain why farmers need mental health support that is tailored to their specific needs?

Farming is unique and farmers operate in a business environment riddled with risk and uncertainty unlike any other business. Farmers face tremendous pressure to succeed against all odds. Not only must they compete with weather, markets and politics, the vast majority are also managing family businesses, which can further complicate running a smooth business. Their unique business environment requires tailored solutions that must work within the context of farming. There is often a very short window to get it right, making traditional mental health solutions unrealistic – farmers cannot simply take a break to get away from it all – seeds must be sown, animals must be cared for, and crops must be harvested. Mental health supports must work within the reality of farming. Furthermore, mental health support available to the general population are oftentimes not available in rural communities, furthering the need for tailored access to support.

What kind of impact have the research findings had so far? What’s next?

I credit Andria Jones-Bitton at the University of Guelph for really bringing farmer mental health to the forefront of discussion within Canadian agriculture. From her ground-breaking work, we have seen the creation of programs to support farmer mental health such as the In the Know program and organizations like Do More Ag who are shining a light on the importance of farmer mental health and creating valuable resources and tools. Where you would be hard-pressed to find mental health on meeting agendas and conference programs within agriculture, it’s now the norm. And, more farmers are speaking out through these events and social media, helping reduce the stigma by speaking openly about their mental health, encouraging and inspiring fellow farmers to focus on their mental health. We’re headed in the right direction and that’s encouraging.

The Healthy Minds, Health Farms report has received incredible attention from our industry, and we have had the privilege to share our findings at industry events and through various agricultural media outlets. The twenty-four recommendations contained within the report are not just for us, but the industry as a whole. And while it’s tricky to measure what others are doing with our findings, I can tell you it has inspired further research. We are currently working with the University of Manitoba who are using our research to further study the link between mental health and management practices to explore the effect various production methods have on mental health. We’ve also created and hosted a series of workshops in support of mental health and farm management, which we plan to continue. And, mental health is worked into all of our programming and tools to ensure it’s part of a comprehensive management plan to keep farmers and their farms healthy for generations to come.

For those wanting to improve their business management practices, what are the first steps?

For those wanting to improve their business management practices, I recommend starting with an assessment. There are a number of free and easy to use tools out there including the Growing Your Farm Profits: Planning for Business Success online assessment tool available at www.farmbusinessassessment.com/. From there, farmers will have an idea of which management areas might need a little help. The assessment includes a template for creating an Action Plan, which can be used as the beginnings of a Business Plan for the farm. From there, you will be well on your way to planning for success!

Supporting Children’s Mental Health on the Farm

We often think of children as happy-go-lucky, free from the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood. But children often pick up on the stressors and challenges of life on the farm. The impact of COVID-19 is still affecting the mental health of children and youth, and many rural communities are facing overwhelming challenges that can generate strong emotions for the whole family.

Opening up lines of communication and talking openly with your children about challenges on the farm and mental health is one of the best places to start. Research into Kansas farm families shows that children often blamed themselves for their family’s financial situation and stress. When parents tried to protect their children by keeping all challenges secret, children felt more anxious. Of course it’s natural to want to protect your children from the harsher realities of life, but often they pick up on this stress anyway. Showing that you are comfortable talking about these issues and facing them can increase feelings of trust and resilience.

Here are some tips for talking to your child about their worries and mental health:

Work on de-stigmatizing the language around mental illness in your own mind. Many adults have a difficult time even saying the words “mental illness”, never mind applying those words to a child. If you seem to stumble over those words, practice saying them out loud. Mental illness is nothing to be scared of, ashamed of or threatened by – so say the words out loud and practice using them. Normalize them as best you can in your mind before you speak to a child about this topic. Work on addressing your own stigma around mental health, so you don’t pass on the stigma to your child.

In rural communities, strength and self-reliance are especially important values. Remind your child that asking for help and talking about their emotional and mental health is a sign of strength.

Be open and honest. As mentioned above, one of the most important aspects to helping a child, whether they will be diagnosed with a mental illness or not, is open and honest communication. Talking openly about emotion and mental health may be difficult, particularly if this is a new way to communicate, but the more open and honest you are about what you’ve noticed, how you’re feeling and your true desire to help, the greater and stronger your journey is going to be.
This goes for the things that are causing great stress on the farm. If you are struggling with farm management, the effects of climate change, financial uncertainty, and other stressors, it’s okay to explain what’s going on. Usually children know when their parents are stressed and upset, and being kept in the dark can increase uncertainty.

Don’t sugar-coat. Talking about mental health and mental illness with a child can be a very serious topic. It deserves to be treated as such. Try not to sugar-coat anything or talk to a child like they’re a baby (this advice is coming from an 11-year old boy diagnosed with four mental illnesses). If you have noticed their behaviour has changed, you can almost guarantee a child has been feeling different. Having you acknowledge this change will most likely come as a relief to them. So be direct with your words and use language suitable for their age.

Try Talking While Doing an Activity: Sometimes having a conversation about mental health can feel overwhelming for you both. Here are some activities you can do for creating a relaxing environment that can help you both open up more easily to one another. Perhaps you can talk about mental health while visiting or working with animals on the farm, which can be more relaxing.

Be truthful, not hurtful. Mental illness and changes in mental health may have caused a child’s behaviour to change dramatically. It can be frustrating, nerve-wracking and daunting to
address behavioural problems, particularly if they are less desirable behaviours. As you begin to navigate along your journey, try to remain as honest and truthful as possible without hurtful or negative comments. Many of these new behaviours from a child may be just as upsetting for them as they are for you, so helping them understand what you’ve noticed and how it makes you feel will go a lot further than telling them the behaviour is “bad” or “naughty.”

Be as prepared as possible for their response. You have no idea how a child will respond to initial conversations about how they are feeling with respect to their mental health and wellbeing. They may feel relieved that you’ve noticed a change. They may feel angry that you’re talking about something that is upsetting for them. They may feel sad if they feel like they’re letting you down somehow. Try to be prepared for any reaction and validate how they are
feeling.

The best way to do that? Stay kind. Stay compassionate. Try to be as understanding as you can possibly be. This advice holds true for your entire journey understanding a child’s mental health. In addition, taking care of your own needs and mental wellbeing will demonstrate to your child how to prioritize mental health and will also ensure you can be there for them.

Finding Moments of Stillness in Seeding Season

The Stigma-Free Society recently spoke with Roberta Galbraith, whose family are 6th generation farmers running a grain, pulse, and oilseed operation. Given the stress and high workload of seeding season, we asked Roberta what kind of strategies she and her family use for winding down at the end of the day and finding stillness in the busiest moments of farm management.

Can you tell us about some of the challenges and joys of being a 6th Generation farm family?

There are always challenges with whatever business you are running as an entrepreneur. Probably one of the most important pieces of running a family farm is that you have to communicate, be committed to the process of mentoring and encouraging the next generation that this is a good place to work, raise a family and eventually own or buy into the business. Our story is a bit different in that my husband and I farm with our two sons but our farm is a 1st generation farm that my husband and I started. We had virtually no funds to invest other than our own when we started. It was the end of the 1980’s and farms were suffering from low commodity prices and high interest rates. We both worked outside of the farm and raised five children while starting the farm. I remember vividly my husband Neil coming home when he was 45 years old and saying to me that it was now or never for him to embrace full-time farming. So we made the leap. One day into seeding that year, our tractor blew and we needed to buy a new tractor. We had just bought a sprayer the day before. Talk about stress. I said to my husband “a grain farm without a tractor is like a dairy farm without cows…it doesn’t work very well!” We bought a tractor that day.

You mentioned being in the middle of seeding a crop and feeling behind because of wet weather. How do you find moments of stillness in these particularly busy moments?

Great question! I tried to focus on the fact that I live in a beautiful part of Canada surrounded by wildlife, green spaces, trees and birds. It is peaceful even when it is stressful. I really enjoyed being on the late shift with my two boys (28 and 31) this year, filling the drill at midnight so that my son Ryan could seed through the night. It was nice to work alongside these two–it made me proud to know that they are good men.

What are some ways that you and your family unwind after a stressful day?

Sleep! I like to go for a walk with the dogs, bike ride, sit on the deck with a drink and just soak in the day and my surroundings. I developed a large backyard “park” at the start of the pandemic and have spent hours out there just gardening. Time passes quite easily!

Sometimes we think of self-care as needing to be linear and consistent. But that doesn’t necessarily work in a profession that fluctuates depending on the season. How do your self-care practices change depending on the season?

In the winter I spend more time reading, doing yoga, walking or snowshoeing, and connecting with friends. Once spring hits, we are outside more and the farm really swings into gear. I try to get up early and sit on the deck for a few moments before the day starts, sip my coffee and make lists of what needs to be done or write down thoughts. I am a community volunteer and am involved with several organizations both locally, provincially and up until recently on a national board. That keeps me busy and gives me an outlet where I focus on others, which can be grounding, as other’s challenges can many times be much worse than your own.

How can we work with the changing seasons and fluctuations in busyness to improve our mental health?

Great question and I think it depends so much on your individual situation. Being “tuned” into your stressors, levels of stress and understanding when your plate is getting too full is key to managing stress I think. Also communication is key….understanding that we all have a role to play on the farm and that ALL jobs are important makes everyone pull in the same direction and that keeps spirits up even when we are tired and things don’t go as planned. We like to try and be proactive, plan ahead, think of contingency plans, and “what if” scenarios. If you have talked about it then you are less stressed when something happens because you already know what the Plan B or C or D is. Working with Mother Nature is not for the faint at heart. She holds the last card and learning that early in your career as a farmer and working with her can be a lot less stressful than working against her. Building resilience is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts that we can give our children and it is a skill that enhances with experience. Pressing pause sometimes is the best decision. Giving ourselves time to reflect and gather our thoughts and actions is sometimes the best use of our resources–both physical and mental.

Running a farm can be a stressful and demanding business, but even in busy seasons, it’s possible to find and cultivate those small moments of stillness that nurture our wellbeing.

The Benefits of Animals on Mental Health

If you have pets or live with animals on the farm, you probably know that animals can be an incredible form of emotional support. Pets can have many benefits for your mental health, including increasing your physical activity, reducing anxiety through providing companionship and affection, boosting self-confidence and adding structure to your day. In rural areas where mental health services are not always plentiful, spending time with pets is one way of improving your emotional wellness. Of course, owning animals and pets comes with a host of responsibilities and can create new stressors as well. But some research suggests that people who grow up in rural areas around animals have better immune systems and fewer mental health challenges. Pets and animals aren’t going to solve mental health issues, but they can be one factor in improving mental wellness.

Therapy Dogs and Equine therapy are both gaining traction and becoming more common forms of mental health support.

Therapy Dogs

Dogs are wonderfully loving and affectionate and can make great companions. Petting dogs has been shown to improve heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. And of course, dogs can help reduce loneliness and encourage us to exercise and meet new people.

A therapy dog is a dog that has been specifically trained and certified to provide emotional support. According to Companion Paws Canada, “A certified personal therapy dog (Companion Paws emotional support dog) is a trained, temperament tested, evaluated and certified dog that brings positive mental health benefits to their owners/handlers. Often a Therapy Dog is beneficial to those that struggle with mental health conditions.” A therapy dog is not the same as a service dog, and is specifically trained to provide affection and comfort. Wounded Warriors is an organization that matches PTSD service dogs with injured veterans and first responders. The benefits of service dogs for those suffering from PTSD has been shown to be profound.

Of course, you don’t need a therapy dog or a service dog to benefit from an affectionate pooch or the other animals and pets in your life.

Equine Therapy

Equine-assisted psychotherapy combines therapy and interacting with horses, such as grooming, feeding and leading a horse while being supported by a mental health professional. Equine therapy can help build emotional awareness, social skills, impulse control, confidence, problem-solving skills, trust in self and others, and empathy. Equine therapy can be used for all ages and for many different reasons, such as managing grief, trauma, PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Rather than simply sitting down and talking with a therapist, equine therapy is more experiential and brings people outdoors. People process and work through their emotions while engaging with a majestic and sensitive animal. Horses are highly observant and often mirror client’s behaviours or emotions, which builds connection and understanding. For people who struggle to be vulnerable and open in a therapeutic setting, equine therapy can help people open up and process what they’re going through.

Working with horses also takes a lot of practical effort. Exercising, feeding, and grooming a horse can provide routine and a sense of purpose and structure. Caring for an animal can also help develop empathy. As people learn to work with the horse and develop greater trust and connection, they are also stepping outside of their comfort zone and learning to take more emotional risks in a healing and non-judgmental environment.

For some people, equine therapy, service dogs and therapy dogs can be incredibly helpful for their mental health. If these forms of therapy aren’t right for you or aren’t accessible in your area, that’s okay too. Simply spending time with animals and pets can be a great way of boosting your overall physical and mental wellbeing.

Understanding Climate Change Anxiety in Rural Communities

Climate change can impact people’s mental health in many ways. Natural disasters such as droughts and forest fires can cause displacement, economic stress, and impacts to livelihood. But climate change can also fuel feelings of uncertainty, guilt, despair and anxiety. Recently, the Oxford English Dictionary included a new word: eco-anxiety, which refers to people’s anxiety in regards to climate change. The American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.”

Those in farming and rural communities may be more directly impacted by climate change, as their livelihood often depends on environmental factors. The uncertainty and sense of impending change can cause many people significant distress, including a sense of grief and loss as their way of life becomes more precarious.

To understand more about how mental health and climate change are linked, we interviewed Sage Palmedo, a scientist and artist currently pursuing an MD at Dartmouth Medical School while starting a regenerative farm in her rural community.

Can you tell me more about your regenerative farm in Claremont and what prompted you and your partner to begin this endeavor?

We are just starting the process of regenerating a 12-acre piece of property in Claremont, New Hampshire. We are new to rural living—both of us are from more suburban communities, but we share a sense of connection to the Earth and are excited to learn about the local history and culture from our new neighbors.

When we first met, my partner told me he wanted to own a farm someday. At the time, I was the manager of our college’s student-run garden, where we grew vegetables, herbs, and fruits for the college dining hall. I was also studying ecology, which is essentially the interconnected nature of life. I was learning how intelligent the Earth is — plants, animals, fungi, and even soil microbes are all listening to each other at any given moment, coordinating their rhythm of life with one another and exchanging nutrients in a dynamic balance. As I learned more about growing food, I was gaining perspective on the cycles of life and death, and how my actions were connected to the fabric of the planet. I learned about industrial farming and its damaging effects on our ecosystems and our health.

Studying at Princeton showed me how our country was founded upon a distinction between people who grew food and people who had food grown for them. It also showed me how this distinction has manifested itself across the globe and impacted humanity’s relationship with Earth. I started to understand how the evolution of our species into an industrial society—with the powerful extracting from the disempowered—has led to pollution of our Earth, the pollution of our homes, and the pollution of our bodies. In a way, this society has also polluted our minds, by convincing us we don’t have the power to change it.

While my partner and I embark on our farming journey, our goal is to transition into a way of life that feels more connected with the Earth. We recognize that, although this land has a complex colonial history, we are all native to Earth and can adopt a sense of responsibility to heal the disconnect between our species and the rest of the planet. Our first step will be to grow as much of our own food as we can, prioritizing fruit trees, nut trees and other perennials. We are inspired by permaculture as well as Indigenous philosophies of farming—but are still in the early stages of understanding how to homestead and farm, since neither of us came from self-sufficient families. Our ultimate goal will be to share the food we grow with our community, share our philosophy of love, and share what we learn about self-sufficiency, health, and sustainability.

Many people experience distress around climate change, especially those in rural communities whose livelihoods are so closely linked to the environment. What are some strategies for working through these anxieties, and what are some actions that we can take as a community?

I think the first step in addressing our emotions around climate change is to gain an awareness of the causes of climate change. The layers of society that create stress within your body—hierarchies, lack of empathy, corporate profit over people—are the same layers that are responsible for the climate collapse we’re experiencing. Societal structures have disconnected us from Earth’s natural cycles over the past several generations. Instead of thinking about climate change as the source of our anxiety, we can start to understand climate change and psychological stress as interrelated processes. With this perspective, we can start to combine the act of healing ourselves and healing the Earth into one journey—reclaiming our power to heal from a society that profits from the Earth’s collective disempowerment.

One helpful affirmation that we can continue to emphasize to ourselves, and to one another, is that we are not alone. You are not alone. All of life on Earth is in this together—interconnected, interdependent, and alive. You are part of the fabric of Earth, participating in a flow of energy that encircles the planet. Allow yourself to recognize your power, and connect to the present moment. Reality only exists in the present—in the “now”—and everything else is just a story we tell. You have the power to create the story of life on Earth that arises from this moment onwards.

An essential principle of health that applies internally as well as externally is the principle of connection. We can heal from Earth’s collective imbalance simply by listening more deeply to our planet and to one another. Where in your community can you help create more feelings of connectedness toward each other and toward the Earth? This could take an infinite number of forms: inviting non-judgmental conversations, sharing your feelings and perspectives with others, offering to help one another grow communal food or trade offerings… Even if you don’t see things the same way as your neighbor, what do you share? Where can we strengthen our bonds with each other in the support of an interconnected planet? The more connected we become, the more our bodies, minds, and planet will benefit. The first step is to get the conversation going, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution—like our landscapes, our communities are all unique. And you have a unique gift to share with the world in this healing process!

You mentioned you’re interested in cultivating mind-body health and resilience. As a medical student and someone involved in farming, can you talk about how these two worlds intersect and inspire you to cultivate community wellbeing?

While the medical system has traditionally treated the mind and body separately, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that the mind and body are profoundly interconnected.

Human societies used to orient around our relationship with the Earth, growing food from the Earth and preparing communal meals. These behaviors—time spent interacting with the Earth, in community—nourished the mind and body at the same time.

In contrast, our global society of today is oriented towards profit. Compared to other regions of the world, North American agriculture consists of larger farms which place more emphasis on machines, chemicals, and genetically modified crops. Big agricultural companies have actively shaped governmental food policy, and as a result, our farmers must meet the demands of the industrial food system to stay financially secure. Driving across the landscape, it is easy to find farms where one single plant species is grown over a large area, year after year—genetically modified corn and soy among the most common. This industrial style of farming undermines the health of the Earth, degrading the microbiome of the soil. It also is the main style of farming used in the production of processed foods; and although a large portion of the foods we consume are processed and packaged, these foods have been shown to disrupt the microbiome within our bodies, undermining our mental and physical health. Industrial farming is a feedback system where, as the health of our soils and our bodies degrades, corporations can profit off of chemicals and engineered seeds that are marketed to fix our problems.

Many healthcare providers have started to recognize the role of nutrition in disease prevention, using the phrase “food is medicine.” Despite this understanding, medical doctors are trained to treat metabolic disease at the individual level, often with medications or surgery. Doctors are not trained to address the root cause of metabolic disease—the industrial food system. Conventional farming treats the land like a machine, and similarly, conventional medicine treats the body like a machine.

Regenerative farming entails working towards a food system that cultivates health on the planet and within our bodies. Despite our mechanical culture, ecological science teaches us that in reality, the land is alive, exchanging information with our bodies at all times. We would like to honor and heal the Earth in the farming process, using the inherent intelligence of nature to nurture the natural intelligence within us. Stress-reduction is an intergenerational process, so the cultural shift towards a healthier society will be gradual. We hope that by cultivating a loving, egalitarian relationship with the Earth beneath our feet, we can play one small role in the collective effort to build an economy centered around human and planetary wellbeing.

Sleep Hygiene and Mental Wellness

When it comes to sleep, there are many benefits to living in rural communities, such as less traffic noise and artificial lights. Those involved in agricultural careers are more likely to sleep and wake with the cycle of the sun, which can be helpful for maintaining consistent sleep routines. Yet according to the Sleep Association, those in rural communities struggle with sleep just as much as those in urban areas. This could be due to many different factors, such as stress levels and greater health inequalities, or the fact that sometimes getting a good night’s sleep is just difficult no matter where you live.

Regardless of where you live, getting enough sleep is one of the most critical actions you can take to maintain overall wellness. Restful sleep benefits your memory, creativity, concentration, problem-solving skills—and, of course, your physical and mental health!

Lack of sleep can cause many problems, including irritation and forgetfulness. Over time, lack of sleep contributes to depression and anxiety. Taking a proactive approach can help mitigate these problems.

Sleep guidelines tend to vary according to age, outlined by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society. Every individual is different, but the general recommendation for most adults is 7 to 9 hours per night. Sleeping in excess of this amount of hours may be a sign of other problems, but generally people struggle with not getting enough sleep, rather than getting too much.

Sleep Hygiene Strategies

  • There are many things you can do to get better sleep. For best sleep hygiene, pay attention to both your practical routines and your physical environment.
  • Maintain a regular schedule. Aim for a consistent sleep and wake-up time every day. You may want to allow for some sleep-in flexibility over the weekend, but it’s a good idea to keep this variation minimal (e.g. a difference of two hours or less).
  • Budget wind-down time. Spend the last 30 minutes before bed doing something relaxing (e.g. taking a bath, listening to soft music, or reading a book).
  • Watch your screen time. Try to take a break from your phone, iPad, and other electronic devices during your wind-down time. Avoid bringing these devices to bed.
  • Monitor your napping schedule. If you take a nap during the day, schedule this nap no later than the early afternoon to avoid disruption to sleep schedules later.
  • Avoid consuming caffeine, sweets, alcohol, or large meals close to bedtime. Having a light snack before bed may help, but be mindful about what you consume. While many of us enjoy a cup of coffee, consume it in moderation and give the caffeine time to leave your system before your scheduled sleep cycle.
  • Restrict the use of your bed. Doing so will help your body to associate being in bed with rest and relaxation. Most importantly, ensure that you are not working in bed.
  • Get physical exercise and exposure to sunshine during the course of your day if you’re not already doing so. Being physically active and spending time outdoors will help regulate your circadian rhythm. These habits are also good for boosting your overall mood.
  • Find a temperature that is comfortable for you. Many people find that they sleep best when they turn the temperature down a degree or two.
  • Reduce and control your light exposure. Depending on your circumstances, room-darkening curtains and/or eye masks may be useful.
  • Silence or block out distracting sounds. You may find it helpful to use ear plugs, a white noise machine or a noise-blocking app.
  • Use quality bedding and pillows. You don’t need to invest in an expensive mattress, but it’s a good idea to ensure that your materials support and promote your comfort.

Making Positive Changes

Cultivating a healthy sleep routine takes time. It’s okay to start small! Rather than try to manage everything all at once, we suggest picking a few strategies to target right away and then add new habits as you are ready. Tracking your patterns over time can also help you make progress! You can use a sleep diary to help you see how you’re doing.

If you find yourself unable to sleep after you go to bed, experts suggest that it’s best not to lie there, tossing and turning. Instead, get out of bed and do a soothing activity in dim light (e.g. sit on the couch and listen to music or use an adult coloring book). Return to bed when you feel you are ready to sleep.

Getting a good sleep is easier said than done, but keep in mind that this is not an all-or-nothing matter. Strive for slow, practical, and feasible gains. Most importantly, do not stress about any difficulties you may have falling asleep. That will only exacerbate the problem! Treat yourself with kindness and compassion at every step. Embracing the reality that not every day–or every night–is perfect will ultimately help you on your journey to better sleep

The Value of Support From Someone Who Has Been There

The Following Is From An Interview With Robyn Priest

Being supported by others who have shared your struggles and know what it’s like is the foundation of peer support. For those living in rural and agricultural communities, the Stigma Free Society has partnered with Robyn Priest LIVE YOUR TRUTH to offer peer support worker training funded by Pacific Blue Cross. With this training, individuals in rural communities can start their own support groups.

Robyn Priest kindly spoke to us about the benefits and values of peer support work.

What is mental health peer support and how did you become involved in this world?

For me mental health peer support is about people who have experienced mental health challenges supporting others who are dealing with mental health challenges. It gives a sense of being “normal”, not someone weird; that I am not alone, not the only person experiencing this. I was diagnosed over 25 years ago and there was a job advertised at something called the Wellington Mental Health Consumers Union In New Zealand. I was like, that sounds pretty cool, everyone has their own mental health challenges. It started there and I just kept getting more and more involved. It made sense to me that people who were dealing with their own stuff could chat about it and be real with others. It’s been a great ride, and I have worked in 10 different countries talking about peer support.

Can you talk about what makes peer support unique compared to something like therapy or other mental health resources?

It’s about camaraderie, having someone to talk to who “gets it”. Peer support comes without an agenda. I am NOT trying to get people to do anything. It’s about supporting people to explore what they want in life. I can share my own experiences and how I got through difficult times, something that’s not always encouraged or allowed in other mental health professions. It’s not my job to fix, save or solve anyone’s issues. Peer supporters are there for the person they are supporting, while sometimes the rest of a team may be trying to get the person to take their meds or achieve a certain recovery goal that has been decided for the person. Peer supporters support the individual to explore what they want.

Peer support lacks hierarchies and expert/ patient roles. What is the value of being supported by a peer who has gone through a similar experience, compared to the support received by a clinician?

Often, we are told we don’t have the education, but we do, it’s just a different education. Our practicum may have been being homeless, or in a psych ward, surviving while using substances, etc. Those are real life experiences and skills that we can share. Someone once described peer support as describing the colour blue to someone who had sight and lost it, versus describing the colour blue to someone who never had sight (the clinician). I know that many people working in the mental health field have their own experiences, but it’s about what their job description says they are required to do. As I said earlier, peer support helps people feel less alone, like someone gets them. That they have an ally. If we can support the system to allow peer support to stay true to the Mental Health Commission of Canada peer support values and allow other clinicians to do their job – it’s a win-win for the individual being supported.

Peer support can benefit both the one being supported and the peer support worker. Can you talk more about this?

Peer support, for me, is about mutuality. I am not better than, or more “recovered” than anyone else. I am working on myself everyday and sometimes when we both share experiences, I learn other coping skills/strategies from that person. It’s not about me as a peer supporter requesting support, or sharing all my issues, it’s just in conversation that things transpire. I am there to support that person but we both learn and grow from any discussion.

Can you talk about some of the values within peer support and why they are relevant to mental wellness?

The values of peer support are about being human as far as I am concerned. The MHCC values of peer support are:

  • Hope and Recovery
  • Self-Determination
  • Empathetic and Equal Relationships
  • Dignity, respect, and social inclusion
  • Integrity, authenticity, and trust
  • Health and wellness
  • Lifelong learning and personal growth

For me the values are about being a “real” person at all times, doing what I say I will do, supporting people to choose what they want in life, not thinking I know what others should do, treating everyone with respect, thinking about people as “whole” people not just about their mental health (my mental health is only a part of me, not all of me) and always being willing to learn and grow. I want that for all humanity.

What does strengths-based support mean to you?

We are so often told what we can’t do, or shouldn’t do because it’s too stressful, but strengths-based support says: look at how strong you are, how resilient, how resourceful. Someone may be labelled manipulative, but if I come from a strengths-based approach, that person is a great negotiator (getting their needs met), creative and strategic in how they go about things. Those are great skills to have. Imagine being told you are manipulative versus being told you have great negotiation skills, are creative and strategic. Then I ask, how can you use those amazing skills in life to have the life you want? It’s about supporting people to see themselves not as a victim, or at the mercy of their mental health challenge, but that they can go after what they want in life. We can all go after things in life, we don’t always get what we want but that’s life for everyone – not just people with mental health challenges. I want to support people to dream big and at least try to go after what they want, to not be shut down by people saying it’s unrealistic or not appropriate. Nobody can determine that but the person themselves.

For more information and to register for peer support training, please go HERE or email info@stigmafreesociety.com. The next training session will be happening in June.
Thanks to a generous grant from Pacific Blue Cross BC, this training is free of cost, with a $50 deposit required to secure your spot. Your deposit will be refunded once you attend the session, unless you choose to donate the $50 to the Stigma-Free Society. Donations are always welcome! Deposits for those who do not participate cannot be refunded.

Spots fill up quickly, so register as soon as possible. Don’t miss this amazing opportunity to build skills for cultivating empathy and understanding in your local community

Addressing Substance Use Stigma in Rural Communities

Matt Begg works for the Umbrella Society, which is an organization supporting those who use substances, and he has generously shared important insights and information about addressing stigma and supporting those with substance use challenges.

Can you describe your role with the Umbrella Society and your passion behind this work?

I work in Umbrella Society’s housing team as an outreach and support worker for clients who live with addiction. In this role, I develop ongoing relationships with clients in order to help them navigate the various systems and organisations in place to get the help they might need. This looks like referring people to treatment centres or helping clients with basic tasks, like getting their ID or paying taxes. Someone might need a doctor’s appointment or a counsellor, so I’ll help them with that as well. Of course, we also work thoroughly with overdose prevention, both in terms of providing it ourselves as well as teaching clients how to use the tools and contact the authorities when necessary. I also try to support clients with positive reinforcement, and through my past as a client of Umbrella myself, exemplify that people can overcome addiction if that’s something that they want. In short, we’re trying to bring care and much needed support to these communities.

What kind of harmful assumptions and stigma still exist around substance use? Can you break down some of these myths for us?

I think things are getting better to a degree, but absolutely, our clients still face tremendous stigma at all levels of society. They’re often assumed to be dangerous criminals, diseased and dirty. Perhaps the most common thing I hear is that they’re lazy, don’t want to be productive and would rather leech off the system. The truth is that all sorts of people can suffer from addiction, regardless of their behaviour, how they look, class, cultural heritage, or how they live their lives. That said, I would say that often people who suffer from addiction are dealing with some kind of pain. It can be physical, emotional or it could be an ongoing mental health issue. For them, drugs are often like a self-prescribed medicine (or an attempt at it) that allows them to manage living day-to-day.

Are there particular challenges in rural communities when it comes to substance use and the stigma that often surrounds people who use substances?

Absolutely. Drugs are often used as a cure for pain. So, the further removed clients are from resources to deal with their pain in a healthy way, the more likely it is for addiction to continue and worsen with those clients. In the case of clients who have emotional trauma and unresolved emotional pain from their past, the isolation caused by stigma can often amplify the problem. If they already have unresolved trauma, dealing with the implications of addiction, feeling isolated and rejected by their community is only going to make matters worse. In rural places where isolation is more exacerbated and addiction services are minimal, this is even more of a problem. A common phrase in this line of work is “the opposite of addiction is connection,” and that really is true. What people suffering with addiction require is community support and being treated with dignity, care and love.

In more populated places like cities, people in addiction have a lot of community and social options. They can find anonymity when that is valuable, and they can find large communities of people in similar situations and are surrounded by considerably more support. Unfortunately, when we look at rural communities, it’s really hard for people in addiction to feel anonymous or to find large-scale community support. When you couple that with the stigma that most addicts are aware of, it can be difficult for somebody in addiction to even justify walking into a grocery store or a coffee shop. Feeling judged or degraded by one’s own community will only serve to create further anxiety and shame in that person, which of course will be worse for their addiction.

If any community, rural or otherwise, wishes to address addiction seriously, then love, care and empathy need to be forefront, using a non-judgmental approach.

How does this stigma discourage people from reaching out for help and accessing needed support?

It is a huge deterrent for clients accessing services. Like I was saying about someone in addiction not wanting to go to a grocery store for fear of being treated poorly or judged, those same feelings of shame can prevent somebody from accessing the services that they need. If you feel like being labelled a drug addict comes with all these other negative stigmas, then why would you go access services that are for drug addicts in any kind of a public way? This is amplified considerably in rural areas where somebody is trying to maintain their own dignity in a closely knit and transparent community.

Alternatively, if addiction was always met with empathy and care, people would be far more likely to access services. It all comes down to care and dignity.

What kind of support exists for people using substances (especially in rural communities)?

If somebody is coping with addiction and looking for supports, there are all kinds out there. A person could reach out for counselling or access a 12-step group such as Alcoholics Anonymous. From a medical perspective, a person could also speak with their doctor about various pharmaceutical solutions. If a person is hoping to overcome their addiction, they can usually find a local medical detox, and if more is needed there are treatment centres and sober living solutions in most places. A lot of these facilities accept people from abroad, making them ideal for people in rural areas. For people who are just trying to maintain an addiction in a healthier way, there are harm reduction organizations and doctors that can offer safe supply (in some places), and even supervised locations where you can use drugs in order to help prevent and treat overdoses. Of course, if somebody wants an outreach worker to help them navigate this sometimes complicated network of options, they can always contact an organization such as Umbrella.

Thankfully, more and more organizations such as these are becoming available. Community and healthcare professionals and governments are starting to realize that treating addiction as part of a greater mental health solution works very well and can save lives. That said, there’s still a lot of social stigma that gets in the way of programs like these being implemented. As we continue to replace stigma with actual education about addiction, I’m sure programs like these will become better funded and more accessible.

Can you explain what a harm-reduction approach is?

Harm Reduction is a strategy for approaching addiction that seeks to reduce harm within the practices of that addiction, be that physical or emotional harm. This approach is opposed to strategies like criminalization or abstinence, where people aren’t given care if they’re still involved in drugs. In a harm reduction approach, people are given care and solutions that fit their needs. Of course, if somebody wants to get sober, services would certainly be provided to achieve that, but for people still in active addiction, a harm reduction approach aims to support them as best as possible despite their continued use. This can take the form of outreach services, safe supply of non-street drugs, clean and unused drug paraphernalia, safe sex supplies and education, safe drug use sites, elevated medical and clinical support, and an overall practice of treating people with care and love.

A common misunderstanding about harm reduction is that it causes elevated drug use in communities, the misconception being that if it’s easier to get drugs and easier to get the tools to get drugs, then more people will do drugs. But repeated studies have shown this is not the case. Ultimately, living a life entrenched in addiction isn’t glamorous or fun, so providing adequate support for people doesn’t make it any more appealing.

How can family, friends and community members best support someone who is struggling with substance use?

“The opposite of addiction is connection” is a pretty good baseline for making decisions around helping people with addiction in our lives. For people hoping to help members of their communities and their loved ones, I would definitely say first and foremost to let the person know they are loved and they are valued. Beyond that, helping to connect them to an outreach worker or a social worker who can tackle some of the more complex systemic stuff would be really helpful. Oftentimes, people in addiction know they need help but struggle to know exactly what they should do and in what order. Trying to navigate complex intake forms and treatment applications while also trying to manage an active addiction is pretty difficult. Also, making sure to consult a medical professional before trying to quit drugs is very important. Some addictions require constant medical supervision due to the dangers of such considerable chemical changes in a person’s body. And lastly, I would say familiarize yourself with how to access and use harm reduction supplies. Naloxone kits save lives everyday, so get your hands on one and learn how to use it.

For people in addiction, simply showing them that you love them and you’re going to be there is enough to help them start making healthier decisions. Many people in addiction struggle with shame and guilt and depression, so whatever you can do to not be a part of that cycle in terms of the way you talk to and treat them will be of tremendous value. It all comes back to care and dignity.