Improving Mental Health Literacy in Rural Communities

Rural Mental Health Learn to readThe more you know about mental health, the better equipped you are to make a positive impact on your community. Educating yourself on mental health helps you care for your emotional wellbeing and recognize when you need to seek support. Mental health awareness is especially important in rural areas, where these issues often aren’t discussed enough or go unnoticed entirely.

The first step to increasing awareness and education surrounding mental health in your rural community is to improve your mental health literacy. Mental health literacy refers to the level of understanding that people have about mental wellness. When someone has good mental health literacy, they are knowledgeable about mental illness. They also have tools to manage their own mental health and take steps to reduce the stigma around mental illness. Some examples ofReading helps the brain good mental health literacy are:

  • Understanding the symptoms and causes of different mental disorders and how they are treated.
  • Having accurate beliefs about the effectiveness of treatments and seeking professional help. (Someone with good mental health literacy may encourage others to seek support from a therapist or doctor and reach out for support themselves, rather than hesitating to ask for help because of stigma.)
  • Making an effort to educate yourself about mental health and apply the strategies you learn in your own life.

By improving collective mental health literacy, rural communities can become more resilient and better able to support themselves and their peers.

Mental Health Literacy in Rural Areas

Read and learn together as a familyMental health literacy training has been proven to be effective for farming communities in rural Canada. More specifically, farmers who complete this training are more likely to seek support when they need it, and they feel more knowledgeable about mental health in general. In addition, they feel more comfortable talking about mental health with those in their community and providing support for others. They are also more confident in their ability to identify when others are struggling with their mental health. In general, mental health literacy training empowers farmers to become more involved and start conversations about mental health in their community, which helps reduce stigma.

Self-reflection is a key component of building mental health literacy. You can start by thinking about your own beliefs about mental health and how you formed them in the first place. How have your experiences or the opinions of your friends and family shaped your views on mental illness? Do you hold any negative beliefs about specific mental illnesses that you could benefit from learning more about? This can help you choose which topics to start with as you seek out information. Signing up for workshops and training programs or making use of free online resources are both easy ways to improve your knowledge of mental health.

Rural Mental Health Programs for Your Community

In The Know is a free rural mental health literacy program created specifically for Canadian farmers and their families. This four-hour workshop, run by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), will educate members of yourReading helps your mental health community on mental illness and facilitate further discussion about mental health. Click here to learn more about In the Know and schedule a workshop!

Stigma-Free Society also offers peer support training for those in rural communities – stay tuned for details on our next 2-day training! Our Rural Mental Wellness Toolkit is full of tools that help improve mental health literacy in rural areas. We offer inspiring stories and a wealth of resources tailored for youth, seniors, families, and more.

How Mindfulness Can Help Farmers Reduce Anxiety and Improve Their Mental Health

Mindfulness is a state of mind where you are tuned into your surroundings and your body. When you are mindful, you are absorbed in the present moment and paying attention to what’s happening here and now, rather than thinking about the future or past. You are observing your feelings and thoughts without judging them. Mindfulness is a beneficial practice for everyone, but it can be especially useful for farmers or those who live in rural areas. Here’s how farmers can use mindfulness to relieve stress and improve their mental wellness.

The Mental Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Farmers

Farming requires a lot of planning and thinking ahead. It involves factors that are out of your control, such as unpredictable weather conditions or changes in the market. These stressors can be difficult to cope with, and can take a substantial toll on your mental health. According to Alma Jorgenson, a farmer from Minnesota who runs a rural mental health program, focusing on the present moment can help reduce anxiety when you’re feeling uncertain about the future. Farmer Andrew French says that practicing mindfulness meditation and yoga helps him maintain an optimistic attitude and stay focused, which helps him reduce the number of injuries and accidents he has while farming.

Focussed Farmers recently investigated the effects of mindfulness on farmers’ mental health. They found that farmers who participated in their mindfulness course for eight to 20 weeks had significantly lower stress levels, an improved state of mind, and even increased self-discipline.

While mindfulness offers specific benefits for farmers, it is beneficial for all people living in rural areas. Mindfulness has been shown to improve well-being and emotional regulation. Not only does mindfulness benefit your mental health, but it can help you improve your relationships and work more efficiently. Research shows that mindfulness can also help with decision-making, learning, creativity, and empathy.

How to Practice Mindfulness on the Farm

There are many mindfulness exercises that are easy to practice as you go about your day. Tuning into your senses is one way to stay grounded and bring your attention to the present moment. Focus on what you see, feel, hear, smell, and taste. This is a useful exercise to keep your mind from wandering when you’re doing physical tasks like caring for animals or cleaning equipment.

Breathing deeply for a few minutes, or simply observing your breath, is another simple way to practice mindfulness. This can be done while sitting in your tractor or truck, or during moments when you have an opportunity to pause. You can also listen to guided mindfulness meditations either by downloading a free app or browsing meditation videos on YouTube. Find one with an appropriate length and content that works for you – some are only 5 minutes long. You can listen to it before you get ready for the day, while you’re walking, or when you take a short break.

Another easy way to practice mindfulness is to engage in mindful eating by minimizing distractions while you eat, and focusing on the taste and texture of your food. Take a moment to appreciate your food and consider the work and preparation that was put into it – especially if it came from your farm. To remain present, try to avoid using your phone or doing paperwork at mealtime. You might find that you feel more relaxed and recharged after your meal!

Mindfulness is a simple yet effective strategy to add to your toolbelt. The more you practice it, the easier it will become. Try to implement it into your daily routine for the best results! If you’re interested in learning more about mental wellness and stigma in rural communities, feel free to browse our collection of rural mental health resources.

Tips for Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Take a moment to visualize a warm summer day where you’re soaking in the sun and spending time in nature. Does this image evoke feelings of happiness and relaxation for you? That’s because sunlight has countless benefits for your mental health! It increases your level of serotonin, a hormone known for its role in emotional regulation and mood-boosting effects. But as the seasons change, so does your amount of sunlight exposure – and, in some cases, your serotonin levels. Because we get fewer hours of sunlight during the fall and winter months, our serotonin levels can decrease. This may trigger seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as “winter depression” or “the winter blues.”

Dairy farmer Brittany Olson points out that farmers may be particularly susceptible to SAD because harvest season can be extremely stressful for those living in rural communities. Moreover, farmers may have limited time to work outdoors in the sunlight during the fall and winter months depending on their location. Because of these factors, rural residents can benefit from awareness of SAD symptoms, the available treatments, and preventative measures they can take to combat seasonal depression.

Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder

If you have winter depression, you may no longer have an interest in activities that used to bring you joy. You might notice that you’re sleeping a lot more than usual but still have low energy and feel down or hopeless. SAD can cause you to have trouble concentrating. You may also experience changes in your appetite, like an intense craving for high-carbohydrate foods.

A Farmer’s Tips for Seasonal Depression

Lois Hoffman, a farmer based in Pennsylvania, shares her tips for overcoming seasonal affective disorder as someone who lives in a rural area. She recommends starting a new project around your house or farm, which can help keep you motivated and give you a sense of accomplishment. It could be anything from crocheting a piece of winter clothing like a scarf or gloves to decorating your garage or home and creating a joyful, peaceful space.

Psychologists and researchers support Lois’ advice: goal setting can help not only with SAD, but other mental illnesses as well, including depression and anxiety. Studies show that setting specific and achievable goals can boost your mental wellbeing. The key is to set a series of small goals instead of taking on one large and overwhelming goal. Building motivation and confidence by celebrating your achievements, no matter how small they may seem, can help you cope with symptoms of SAD.

Light Therapy and Lamps for SAD

Light therapy is a common treatment for winter depression. It involves using a “SAD lamp” with a bright light that works as an artificial substitute for sunlight. You use the lamp early in the day for 20 to 60 minutes – ideally in the morning – without looking directly at it.

Other Treatments for Seasonal Affective Disorder

Vitamin D supplements, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), and antidepressants are all effective treatments for SAD. They are sometimes used in combination with light therapy. Overall, there are many treatments for SAD, and help is widely available if you have been diagnosed or believe you have this condition. You don’t need to suffer through it alone. Talk to your healthcare provider to find the treatment option that works best for you.

If you’re looking for more mental health tools, feel free to browse our Rural Mental Wellness Toolkit, where you’ll find helpful videos, conversation cards, and more educational articles about mental health specifically for rural residents.

Taking Care of Yourself During the Holidays

As the year approaches its end, the holiday season is soon to be in full swing. For some people, this can be an exciting time. Maybe the string lights, holiday music and the prospect of social gatherings bring a sense of cheer and elation. For others, this time can be incredibly stressful and come with lots of added pressure: maybe the social gatherings mean undesired guests and increased financial demands. People from rural communities can face these pressures even more as the unpredictable economic and environmental conditions can exacerbate financial stress. With limited access to social support and mental health resources in rural communities, it is important that we destigmatize the topic of wellbeing over the holidays and start having open conversations about how we can support ourselves and each other through the more difficult aspects of this time.

Financial stress

As the holidays approach, you might be planning for gifts, dinners, transportation, and a host of other things that all require money. The holiday season can come with a lot of financial pressure, and it can be a big source of stress during these times. Being honest and intentional about your holiday spending budget and trying to find ways to reduce costs can help to lessen some of this financial strain.

Budget your spending:

Take some time to decide how much money you have to allocate to gifts, food, gatherings, and anything else you might be spending on. Break down the budget into various spending areas and keep track of your spending to ensure that you are sticking to this budget.

Find ways to share or reduce costs:

Lots of people experience increased financial pressures over the holidays, yet this often goes unspoken. There are creative ways to share expenses and reduce some of the financial pressure on everyone. A gift-exchange or secret Santa with a set price can reduce the number of gifts that everyone buys, while still ensuring that everyone in the group receives something. Homemade gifts can also be a great way to give meaningful gifts at a lower cost. Things like homemade recipe books, jams or other crafty ideas can be really special to give to loved ones.

Sharing costs of food can also help ease some of the financial strain over the holidays. Organizing pot-luck gatherings can be a way for everyone to contribute at get-togethers.

Social gatherings

For some people, this time of year means spending time with friends, family and other people in your life. While this might be exciting for some, it can also be dreaded for a multitude of reasons. Regardless, there are some things to consider that might make social gatherings more enjoyable.

Consider whether saying no or scaling back is an option

This time of year can be packed with social commitments, and sometimes it can get overwhelming. Maybe the idea of gatherings leaves you feeling anxious and there are other ways you would rather spend your time. Consider making a list of the commitments that are the most important, and prioritizing the attendance of these ones rather than others. If saying no is not an option, try to set aside some time during gatherings to step aside and refresh. It might even help to talk to a trusted person who will be at the event and let them know how you are feeling, so that they can step aside with you whenever you need a break.

COVID stress?

Perhaps the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic causes concern for the health of yourself or loved ones. If this is the case, finding alternate ways to engage in social gatherings might ease some of this stress. One of the outcomes of the pandemic is that online social gatherings are much more common, so organizing some sort of get-together or activity on a virtual conferencing platform could be a good way to spend time with loved ones while keeping people safe. If you feel uncomfortable attending a planned gathering, staying home and asking a loved one to video call you during the event allows you to participate without physically attending.

Loneliness and isolation

Being alone over the holidays can be incredibly isolating. Maybe this can be a time to treat yourself to doing something you enjoy, whether that is taking a walk, reading your favourite book or doing something else you might want to do but don’t often make time for. Volunteering at places like food banks can also be a great way to connect with people, and services like these are often looking for extra help during this time of year. Many rural communities do not have accessible community resources. If this is the case for you, it can help to connect with people virtually.

Grief and loss

The holidays can bring up a lot of difficult emotions for people who are dealing with the loss of a loved one. It might feel right to honour the loved one by continuing traditions or talking about happy memories you shared with the person. If this does not feel right, maybe it is a time for new traditions and memories. It can help to talk about what you’re going through with people that you trust so that they can support you through the grief, however that looks for you.

Know when to reach out for support

Although there is often a lack of community resources and support for rural populations, there are ways that you can get help. Many resources can be accessed remotely, including support lines, peer support groups and therapy services. There is no shame in reaching out for help, and it might help to familiarize yourself with the resources that are available to you in case you or someone you know might want to reach out.  for a list of community resources in Canada, the U.S. and North America.

3 ROCQY executive members meeting at pride. Rachel (she/they) standing on the left is wearing red jean shorts, a navy hawaiian button up short sleeve shirt with red flowers and green palm leaves on it, and a burgundy t-shirt underneath. They are also wearing safety pin earrings with the word ROCQY on them. Rachel is white with long brown hair, brown eyes, and smiling. Mabe (they/them) is standing in the middle with short blue jeans, a blue and white plaid shirt, with a purple t-shirt underneath that has the ROCQY logo on it, rainbow suspenders, a rainbow bowtie, a panama hat, sunglasses hanging out of their pocket that have a rainbow frame. Mabe has earrings that were beaded and has rainbow eyeshadow on. Mabe is white with short brown hair and brown eyes and is smiling. Nathan (he/him) standing on the right side is wearing blue jeans, a dark blue button up short sleeved shirt with heart shaped pride flags on it, and a red t-shirt underneath. Nathan has a sticker of the ROCQY logo on his shirt and is holding onto a transparent water bottle with a black lid. He is white with strawberry blond hair, a beard and mustache, and blue eyes. He is wearing glasses. In the background there are people standing off the the side, a trailer and a golf cart, trees, and a large brick building.

Building Community One Step at a Time for Rural 2SLGBTQ+ Youth: Mabe Kyle

The Stigma-Free Society reached out to Mabe Kyle and asked them to share their experience with stigma and mental health as a rural youth in the 2SLGBTQ+ community. Mabe is a poet and co-founder of the ROCQY (Rural Ontario Community of Queer Youth).

Mabe Kyle (they/them)

Maker of poetry, pottery, and photography who loves being creative.
Adventurer who calls many places home across border lines.
Builder of communities who enjoys being active.
Embracing friends, family, and their neurodivergent mind.

Keener for desserts served at every meal with the sweetest tooth you may find.
Yearning for disability justice and liberation for the collective.
Learning how to express gratitude and be kind.
Embodying a life without binaries who is very introspective.

the thing about weeds is they’re
only weeds if they’re unwanted.
the child in me was a dandelion
excluded from bouquets of flowers.

find ways to grow resiliently
through cracks of pavement,
in a garden among flowers planted,
even when you’re unwanted

the lion in me roars as I transition
into a white flower full of seeds
let the wind pick me up and carry me

you may bury me
but I will grow again,
bring new life,
let my wishes soar high

Mabe (they/them) on their farm standing in front of a pen with a wooden gate and sheep are inside the pen. Mabe is wearing a purple plaid button up short sleeved shirt, jeans, and work boots.Three identities that I hold close to me are being queer, being disabled, and being rural. These are identities that I was born with and that I proudly choose to identify with. Identities that have left me feeling ostracized and isolated, as well as identities that have brought joy and community into my life.

I grew up believing this narrative that I could not be both queer and rural. That if I wanted to be queer and accepted, I needed to move to the big city where I could find community. I had spent my teenage years deeply closeted and suppressing my queerness and gender. When it came time to begin my post secondary education, I decided to move to Toronto. However, I quickly realized that as a rural person, I didn’t quite fit in there either. My home community is where my heart remained and where I wanted to continue doing work.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I had moved home after living abroad for the previous two years. I knew that I had to use this time I was spending at home to address serious underlying issues from my mental health struggles that I had been procrastinating working on for years. I tried to find a therapist, but I faced multiple barriers. Even when looking for funded therapists online, I faced stigma and ignorance around being a queer and trans person. One therapist even mentioned in an email that he did not have a lot of experience working with the 2SLGBTQ+ community as he was from a small town. As someone who has lived on a farm for most of my life, that even further erased my experiences of being rural and queer. From my travels around the world, I have come to truly understand that 2SLGBTQ+ people have existed in every human culture since human culture began, even in the most rural and remote places. The difference is how safe people feel living in their communities and being the most authentic version of themselves.

In June of 2021, I was part of a research participation project on 2SLGBTQ+ youths’ experiences of accessing mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the common barriers that was brought up was rural access to mental healthcare – especially mental healthcare that understood and respected 2SLGBTQ+ people. After discussing the barriers that we faced as a group, we were to come up with a solution. The solution that I suggested was to create a peer support group virtually by and for rural 2SLGBTQ+ youth. For me, having community and a sense of belonging is what has helped my mental health recovery and healing journey. I wanted to create this for other rural 2SLGBTQ+ youth who might be isolated in rural communities, and not have access to 2SLGBTQ+ communities or have a sense of belonging in their home community. Through further discussion and planning, we came up with ROCQY, the Rural Ontario Community of Queer Youth.

To ensure that this idea wasn’t left in research reports and became a tangible grassroots organization, we worked hard to apply for a small grant, run a series of care and wellness workshops, collaborate and curate a zine. We also attended several pride celebrations across rural Ontario, from Haldimand-Norfolk to Strathroy to Kawartha Lakes and places in between. At ROCQY, we are continuing to organize and build the communities that we dream of and want to live in; communities where 2SLGBTQ+ youth can heal and thrive.

let there be a garden of wildflowers
who were made to believe
that they were weeds,

let them grow and make their home together
let them be each other’s family

let them nourish the butterflies who have transformed through metamorphosis
let them nourish the bees making sweet honey
let them enrich the soil through their gifts uniquely

let none of their petals be love me nots
let them thrive

I dream of a community of healers
spreading sustainability for a future
where dandelions are valued
as the wildflowers they are, bringing beauty

To learn more about the ROCQY, browse their Facebook page and follow them on Instagram.
Listen to Mabe and Blake’s interview on the Clearing a New Path Podcast, and check out the affirmation deck created by members of the ROCQY!
Mabe was also featured in the Trans Canada Project: you can watch their interview here.

Finding a Way to Grow Forward

Written by Tim Neubauer

Mental health is a complex issue. For many people who experience challenges with their mental health, it can be difficult finding the right supports on their recovery journey. For years, the stigma associated with the subject has kept a lot of people suffering in silence. Thankfully things are beginning to change, and the discussion has become more open as people realize that “we all have mental health.” This means it is possible to have a diagnosed mental illness and still experience good mental health, while conversely many people with no diagnosis do find at times their mental health languishing. The day-to-day mental struggles and challenges that we face both at home and in the workplace are not always the result of a mental illness but can be caused by human distress, grief, and sorrow. Life can affect us in both positive and negative ways!

The past several years have been exceptionally challenging for a lot of people and the collective consequence is that all of us have experienced the feeling of living “off balance” at times when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing. Being immersed in a pervasive cultural current of fear and dealing with significant changes and loss have added considerable extra stress to the lives of people in both urban and rural communities. That “off balance” feeling can leave us questioning our personal resilience, doubting our self-efficacy, and wrestling with our ability to move forward.

Recovery from major life disruptions is challenging for everyone and we are not alone when it comes to being negatively impacted by what has happened. It can be slow work for us to get back to our balance and once again build up the supports that help us on our journey. The good news is that for most people, we can move forward experiencing personal growth despite the setbacks and challenges. Over the past 10 years working both with individuals and communities around community resilience, the research of Stevan Hobfoll has proven to be a very helpful launch point.

Through the combined efforts of over 70 researchers representing multiple sectors, five essential elements were identified as significant supports for psychological, social, and spiritual recovery. Individuals, families, organizations, and communities have used them as a framework for validating collective experiences, rebuilding support, and birthing programs that help strengthen mental health, create clarity, and provide new tools to deal with future challenges and disruptions.

I will briefly mention each of these elements and provide some helpful questions for you to consider as you find your own way to grow forward.

Safety:​ Often safety is a relative state and what feels safe to us in the moment may change depending on our circumstances. A good place to begin is by asking yourself: do I feel safe right now? If not, what would safety look like for me and for my community?

Calming​: One of the ways that we manage heightened anxiety is by implementing a variety of calming measures that can deactivate our central nervous system from a heightened state and shift  it to a place where we feel more at ease. Basically, we are trying to find ways to tell ourselves “I am not currently in danger” and therefore do not need to be in a state of fight, flight or freeze. ​Different techniques work better than others so finding what works best for you is important.

Self and Community Efficacy​: is a belief that our actions are likely to lead to positive outcomes and that as members belonging to a larger group, together we will be able to competently handle the events that we are facing. ​Growing our efficacy requires that we develop the skills that are needed to overcome these threats, providing some new solutions to our problems. Consider how you might build more of these skills and ask yourself: what resources are needed for you to meet the challenges?

Social Connections​: There is a growing body of research on the importance of social support and sustained attachments to loved ones and social groups in combating stress and trauma. ​The isolation of the past two years has exacerbated many of our existing challenges,  so a good question for us to ask is, who in my community might benefit from meaningful connection and stronger social support?

Hope​: Disasters, disruption and crisis are often accompanied by a “shattered” or altered worldview. ​A common response is for people to “catastrophize” their lives, undermining hope and leading to reactions of despair and futility. Keeping a longer-term perspective, being more patient and kinder with ourselves, expressing gratitude and learning to build on our strengths can help to restore hope both personally and in our communities.

How we plan and create supports around each one of these elements can help us as individuals, families, and communities on our journey to better mental health, collective flourishing, and more resilient tomorrows. ​

As global mental health thought leader, Dr. Vikram Patel reminds us “there is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left in the hands of the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone’s business.”​

​Tim Neubauer is the Training Coordinator for the Rural Mental Health Network. He has spent over 28 years involved in asset-based community development work, psycho-social capacity building in communities following natural and man-made disasters and training development and facilitation for organizations across Alberta looking to create psychologically safer workplaces. Passionate about citizen-led community action he is a champion for social movements seeking change at a societal level. You can find him at www.rethinklife.ca and on Twitter @rethinklifeca

 

(See full research article here: Hobfoll, Stevan & Watson, Patricia & Bell, Carl & Bryant, Richard & Brymer, Melissa & Friedman, Matthew & Friedman, Merle & Gersons, Berthold & Jong, Joop & Layne, Christopher & Maguen, Shira & Neria, Yuval & Norwood, Ann & Pynoos, Robert & Reissman, Dori & Ruzek, Josef & Shalev, Arieh & Solomon, Zahava & Steinberg, Alan & Ursano, Robert. (2007). Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid-Term Mass Trauma Intervention: Empirical Evidence. Psychiatry. 70. 283-315; discussion 316. 10.1521/psyc.2007.70.4.283.)

 

The Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective

Stigma-Free Society recently reached out to Meagan Ann Gordon and Kaitlyn Beaulieu from the Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective (ROYMHC). Keep reading to learn more about the ROYMHC and Kaitlyn’s experience with mental health as a youth living in a rural area!

1. Tell us about the Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective! Why was it originally created, and what programs and services do you offer?

Meagan: In 2018, Nicole McKerracher, Executive Director of the Osgoode Youth Association (and now Chair of ROYMHC) brought together 13 rural youth-serving agencies invested in the mental wellbeing of rural Ottawa youth (ages 12 to 24). What started as a conversation turned into an action-orientated working group set out to understand and move the needle on rural Ottawa youth mental health. We became the Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective.

From there, we set out to establish how many rural Ottawa youth felt supported, and what types of programs and services could be offered to help them feel more supported with their mental health. Through robust data collection where we spoke with and surveyed youth, parents/guardians, and community stakeholders, we developed an intended impact statement: By 2024, 80% of rural Ottawa youth (ages 12-24) will feel they are getting the mental health support they need or know where to go for help if and when they need to access support.

How are we going to do this? We have a 5-strategy approach.

The first strategy is connecting with rural Ottawa youth to let them know what already exists in their local rural area. We do this through a dedicated website, social media and community outreach. We also partner with CHEO’s YouthNet to do in-school presentations, where we educate students on mental health skill building, chat about community resources available in specific rural areas, and connect them to ROYMHC.

The second and third strategies are youth education and circle of support education. Both of these strategies involve community-based workshops. The Collective is meeting youth where they’re at and co-facilitating with local Community Resource Centres who offer youth counselling.
Strategy four is to advocate for increased investment in rural-specific programming and to promote youth mental health counselling programs in rural Ottawa communities. This also includes helping rural-serving organizations secure and design private and welcoming spaces for rural mental health counselling.

Finally, strategy five is community engagement. This involves building the capacity of existing rural-serving youth organizations and working with a Youth Advisory Committee to gain guidance and feedback from youth.

2. What are some of the main challenges you’ve seen rural youth face with regard to mental health? How can these challenges be addressed?

Meagan: Let’s set the scene: You’re 16 years old and you live with your family in Fitzroy Harbour, a rural community in Western Ottawa with a population of about 580 people. You’re struggling with your mental health and you decide to find out what programs and services are available to you. You call a helpline that connects people to social services, programs and community supports. The operator on 211 asks for your postal code. The operator is thrilled to hear you live in Ottawa because you’re eligible for many great programs and services! The problem is, they’re in the urban core of Ottawa. You don’t drive and there’s no bus service. Your parents are supportive, but they have full-time jobs and can’t take you to a mid-day appointment 50+ minutes away.

This is one example of a scenario that ROYMHC members have heard repeatedly: Ottawa has many specialized mental health programs and services, but due to Ottawa’s vast land mass, there is a major disconnect between rural and urban/suburban. Local school boards have supports in rural schools, but there are limitations to accessing those services. ROYMHC members know that in order to support rural Ottawa youth more effectively, there needs to be a dedicated community approach – a rural specific approach.

3. If rural youth in Ottawa need support, where can they reach out?

Meagan: If you are a rural Ottawa youth or ally looking for support, check out our website at www.ruralOttawayouth.ca and follow us on Twitter (@RuralOttYouth), Facebook (Rural Ottawa Youth Mental Health Collective), or Instagram (@RuralOttawaYouth). Our website provides rural-local and virtual options.

4. What has your personal experience with mental health been like as a youth living in a rural community?

Kaitlyn: As a youth living in a rural community, it was both challenging and isolating navigating my mental health challenges. All the services I needed were so far away downtown. Given the lack of public transportation and lack of local resources, it was almost impossible to access supports and services. My only saving grace was that my school brought in specialized services for at-risk youth, which I met the criteria for. To this day, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities and services I received.

5. In your opinion, what is the most important thing adults can do to support rural youth?

Kaitlyn: In my opinion, the most important thing adults can do to support rural youth is be open and willing to listen. If a youth trusts an adult enough to open up these dark and vulnerable parts of themselves, it is vital that we have someone safe and supportive there to listen.

6. What strategies do you use to take care of your mental health and overall well-being?

Kaitlyn: To take care of my mental health and overall well-being, I like to go for walks with my dog, or do something active like going to the gym or for a bike ride. I enjoy baking and doing anything creative, like crafts or makeup.

Filling the Gaps in Access to Rural Mental Healthcare

Ally Waddell is an Instructor at Mental Health First Aid. She holds an Honors Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and Family Studies & Human Development. The Stigma-Free Society had the opportunity to speak with her about the barriers she faced while seeking mental healthcare as a rural resident, and how she is working to fill this gap. She is now a mental health advocate in her community and helps others face the same challenges she successfully overcame. Read her story below!

I have lived in rural southwestern Ontario my whole life. I grew up in a small town only to move to another small town. I have always loved having friends and family close by, being able to walk across town in 15 minutes, and being greeted by name when I entered my favourite local stores. One downfall to the simplicity of small-town living is that we do not always have the same access to services as someone living in an urban centre. My experience of navigating the mental health system was not unique for someone living in a rural area. I had a hard time being heard, was put on waiting lists, and had to travel 30+ minutes to every single appointment.

My childhood was filled with joy and love. My parents have always done whatever they can to help me succeed and be the best version of myself. They have shown this time and time again when it comes to my journey with mental health. Ever since I can remember, I have had anxiety, always worrying about what is next. As a kid, I also had a phobia of dogs. This phobia was a barrier as it was difficult for us to go places where there would be a dog. To help with this phobia, my parents sought out a counsellor for me who tried exposure therapy. For several weeks, my mom and I would drive an hour each way to have a one-hour session. Living in a rural area, the options for treatment were limited, and driving two hours for a one-hour session was a compromise we had to make for me to find help. I still had this phobia for a few years before I eventually grew out of it, but this was my first experience receiving treatment for my mental health.

Once I reached high school, my mental health began to get worse. I had anxiety, but I was now also feeling depressed and having frequent panic attacks. We made an appointment for me to see our family doctor. I went to this appointment hoping to get help. I wish I could say that was the outcome, but unfortunately, it was not. I was put on medication that had side effects that made things worse for me. I also started counselling. I saw about 4 different counsellors who I wanted so desperately to help me. By this point, I had spent so much time attending and travelling to different appointments with such little progress, and I was feeling frustrated. I wanted help, but nothing was working. My options were limited: they were at least a 30-minute drive away, and everything had a wait list.

Halfway through high school, things changed for the better. I started to see an incredible nurse practitioner (NP). My NP advocated for me to get the help I needed. I received a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, depression, and panic disorder.I was put on a waiting list to see a psychiatrist and social worker. The psychiatrist was based out of a large city that was hours away, but we were able to set up virtual appointments at my NP’s office. This appointment was helpful for me to learn more about my diagnosis and the treatment I would have. Part of my treatment was seeing a social worker. I was able to meet with one through our Family Health Team. I am so grateful to this social worker – she taught me so much and truly made such a positive impact in my life. With the help of medication, my nurse practitioner, and my social worker, things drastically improved.

After I had gone through some things during my first year of university, I needed to go back to see my social worker. I feel so fortunate that I was able to get back into see the same counsellor and have the same positive results. I am happy to say that 5 years later, things are going great. I have the most amazing support system in my boyfriend, family, and friends. I also have tools and coping strategies to help me when things are starting to go downhill.

All of this led me to become an Instructor of Mental Health First Aid through the Mental Health Commission of Canada. I believe that if more community members were trained in how to support someone who is struggling with their mental health, this would make such a positive impact, especially in rural areas where there continues to be long waitlists and troubles navigating the system. This training can help to fill in some of the gaps.

This past year, I have also joined a group with other mental health advocates called North Perth Cares. We are a group of community members who all have been impacted by mental illness in one way or another and are working together to support community members in their journey toward improved mental health.

I feel fortunate to have opportunities to share my passion for mental health with others. A passion that started because as a teenager, I felt so much frustration trying to navigate the system and get help in my rural area. Now, I am an advocate for helping others who have similar struggles.

Thank you for reading about my journey!

If you would like to get in touch with Ally, you can contact her here!

The Mental Health Benefits of Care Farming

Traditional forms of mental health treatment, like psychotherapy or peer support groups, can provide life-changing benefits. However, people living in rural areas may experience stigma that prevents them from seeking treatment. Care farming offers a unique opportunity for rural communities: it incorporates mental health treatment into fun social activities in a stigma-free environment.

What Is Care Farming?

Care farming, also known as social farming, is the practice of using farming activities as a form of therapy, along with counselling and other mental healthcare interventions. Care farms have structured, licensed programs that are led by mental health professionals. Groups of clients work together to complete various agricultural tasks, such as flower or vegetable farming, tending to animals, and harvesting.

Participating in a care farm program provides clients with the opportunity to give back to their community while building self-esteem and learning new skills. Care farms serve a variety of people seeking therapeutic interventions. They may offer services to those coping with depression or addiction, veterans, and children with autism. Any group of marginalized people can benefit from the services of a care farm.

How Does Care Farming Help?

Care farming has been proven to have several mental and physical health benefits! They reduce depression and stress, slow cognitive decline, and give clients a sense of community and belonging. They also provide a safe, inclusive environment for people with mental illness to get to know each other. Moreover, the focus is on farming activities rather than the individual. This can help relieve the social pressure that clients may feel, especially those who are concerned about stigma or judgement. Care farms help clients gain self-efficacy as they practice new skills. They may even offer clients an opportunity to pursue new qualifications and employment opportunities. This instils a sense of hope and confidence that is especially helpful for recovery.

In addition, exercising and spending time in nature are known to be beneficial for mental health. Care farms encourage both of these practices, and often provide animal therapy with psychotherapy or other forms of treatment. Overall, they help clients learn new tools to improve their overall health and make connections with others in their community.

Care Farming in Canada

The care farm model is popular across the UK and Europe. Although it’s not as common in Canada yet, there are already some successful care farms that are spearheading the movement. Green Care Farms is located in Milton, Ontario and serves people living with dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other cognitive impairments. It was founded by Rebekah Churchyard, who learned about the effectiveness of care farms in Europe and wanted to fill this gap in Canada. Green Care Farms has a social worker and researcher on their team who develop and evaluate programs geared toward their target population. The farm features a Sensory Garden, where patients help design the garden and plant their own fruits, flowers, and vegetables.

Fiddlehead Care Farm offers services geared toward children, teens, and young adults. They provide individual and family counselling, as well as with animal therapy. They also teach young people life skills through farming-related tasks, and help them develop a sense of responsibility and purpose. The farm is located in Mono, Ontario and is currently seeking volunteers!

Care farming is a great way to support those seeking treatment in rural communities. By combining the therapeutic benefits of nature, exercise, and group activities, it offers incredibly powerful tools for mental health. Most importantly, care farming encourages people with a shared lived experience to come together and relate to one another, reducing feelings of shame and stigma.

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.