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Running on Empty? Tips on How to Refuel and Refresh

When life gets busy, it can be very difficult to stay calm, focused, and energized. If you’ve ever felt like you were running on empty, you are not alone. Given the strenuous labour and challenging working conditions involved in farming, especially during harvest season, it’s no wonder that Canadians in rural and agricultural communities report high levels of stress. While it can be difficult to make time for yourself as you respond to the many demands of caring for crops, animals, and your own family members, prioritizing your own wellness is critical.

You wouldn’t expect a piece of machinery to stay in good working order without careful maintenance. Human beings are not machines, but there’s a worthwhile parallel to be drawn here. All of us benefit from regular check-ins and tune-ups. While that might sound like simple, common sense, it’s easier said than done. Many of us continue to push ourselves until we’re utterly exhausted. Learning how to take an inventory of your energy levels and respond accordingly is a lifelong process. Here are a few simple steps, suggestions, and resources that may be helpful in getting started.

Early Warning Signs & Interventions

1Taking a proactive approach to your overall health starts by paying attention to any signals that you may be overtaxing yourself. When you know what your early warning signs look like, it becomes easier to intervene before things get to the breaking point. This critical work involves understanding the impacts of stress and exploring healthy coping mechanisms.

Stress is the body’s response to change, especially change that is perceived as a potential difficulty, and it is an inevitable part of daily life. A small amount of stress can be a good source of motivation (this is called “eustress”); however, too much tension can become harmful. The stressors causing this tension might be physical (e.g. accident or injury), psychological (e.g. personal pressures), or situational/environmental (e.g. uncertain weather patterns).

When we’re under stress, we’re likely to experience physical, emotional, and behavioral changes. As highlighted by Farm Credit Canada, typical signs that someone might be struggling with too much stress include making more frequent mistakes, feeling more resentful toward others, and thinking about quitting farming entirely. The National Agricultural Safety Database offers a thorough list of common symptoms, a helpful checklist for identifying stressors, and a variety of strategies for keeping stress levels in check. Different people have different ways of managing stress, but the foundational point is that we all need to make time for rest—physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Taking Care of Body, Mind, and Spirit

When it comes to thinking about rest, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is sleep. Getting a sufficient amount and quality of sleep on a consistent basis is key to maintaining wellness, but sleep is just one piece of the puzzle. Lesley Kelly, Co-Founder of Do More Agricultural Foundation, offers some helpful advice in a short piece on The 7 Types of Rest Every Farmer Needs. As Kelly emphasizes, true restoration includes all of the following elements:

● physical rest (e.g. naps)
● mental rest (e.g. affirming something positive about yourself)
● emotional rest (e.g. sharing difficult feelings with someone you trust)
● social rest (e.g. spending time with friends)
● creative rest (e.g. cooking or woodworking)
● sensory rest (e.g. deep breathing exercises)
● spiritual rest (e.g. doing something that is purposeful and meaningful to you).

Doing some thoughtful exploration into these seven areas can radically change the way that we approach our own wellness. What’s needed is a proactive, holistic approach to self-care.

Although “self-care” is a word that is frequently bandied about, it’s often oversimplified and misunderstood. Common misconceptions include confusing self-care with selfishness, thinking that self-care requires a lot of time and money, and stereotyping self-care as a practice just for women. Contrary to popular belief, self-care doesn’t need to take the form of fuzzy slippers, a bathrobe, or fancy candles. In essence, self-care is about making time for the things that give you strength and energy, whatever that looks like for you.

Rather than regard self-care as a special kind of indulgence or reward, think about how you can incorporate small moments of joy into your everyday life. This might be as simple as appreciating the landscape around you or recalling a memory of finding refreshment in nature.

A recent study from the Centre for Critical Studies of Rural Mental Health at Brandon University (June 2021) underscores this connection between wellness and the natural environment. Findings from their survey of 24 men living in rural communities show that places such as backyards, golf courses, and waterbodies serve as important spaces of solace, peacefulness, and connection. Seemingly ordinary landscapes can have extraordinary power, both in their inherent beauty and in the opportunities they present for place-specific social activities such as hiking, biking, or fishing.

While other studies have called attention to the overall lack of access to mental health support within remote and agricultural communities, these findings indicate that everyday rural landscapes can be vital resources for mental wellness. To perceive this restorative potential, we simply have to shift out of the preoccupation with doing that characterizes our busy lives and enjoy simply being in the present moment.

Breaking the Silence: Allan Kehler Speaks about Men’s Mental Health

Although the stigma surrounding mental health challenges has begun to diminish, there remains much work to be done, especially when it comes to men’s experiences. Given that traditional gender norms remain prevalent, including outdated and one-sided ideas of “masculinity” as characterized by emotionless independence, it’s no surprise that men are reluctant to reach out for help. This social stigma can be all the more pointed in rural communities, where ideas about self-reliance tend to be deeply entrenched, as Edward Staples, President of the BC Rural Health Network, observes. Expectations that one is supposed to “man up” and “keep ploughing” cause many to suffer in silence. 

Among the voices pushing back against these harmful attitudes is Allan Kehler, mental health advocate, international keynote speaker, and best-selling author. Having grown up in a small community in rural Saskatchewan, Allan speaks with in-depth and first-hand knowledge about the difficulties that those in small agricultural communities face when it comes to mental health. Earlier this fall, Allan shared his compelling and courageous story with interviewer Gerry Friesen, the Recovering Farmer, at one of the Stigma-Free Society’s Rural Mental Wellness Live Events. Their conversation confronted the damaging stereotypes and sense of shame faced by men in rural communities and offered the inspiring message that speaking out about mental health, as difficult as it may be, is profoundly rewarding. By becoming tough enough to talk about these difficult experiences, we can find freedom for ourselves and connection with others.

Conversation Starters 

Opening a conversation about mental health can seem like a daunting task, but this work begins with very small steps. Asking questions that show interest in and concern for another person and their well-being can create opportunities for supportive connections. 

During the Rural Mental Wellness Live Event with Gerry Friesen, Allan reflected on one of the “turning points” in his own journey: when one of his professors at the University of Alberta took a genuine interest in his well being. This professor opened the door for an authentic conversation by asking, “How are you doing today, Allan?” a simple but significantly personalized version of what is all too often an automatic greeting.  

Similarly, Lesley Kelly of the Do More Agricultural Foundation suggests several alternatives to the conventional greeting “how are you?” that set up a more sincere connection. Variations like “I’ve been thinking about you a lot. How are you doing?” or “What can I do to support you at the moment?” can send the message that you care. Kelly also emphasizes that one of the most effective ways to bring out an honest answer is to lead by example.

Reaching out for support, whether to a friend, family member, or professional, is seldom easy. The hardest part may be taking that first step. But though we tend to labour under the assumption that we are alone in these struggles, the reality is that many people can relate. The more that we challenge the myth of invincibility, the better we can understand vulnerability for what it is: a sign of strength, not weakness, and an opportunity to forge life-changing and life-giving connections. 

Inspiring Stories 

As Allan highlights with humour and insight, it’s high time to challenge the culture of stoicism that causes people, especially men, to fear being perceived as weak. His most recent book, MENtal Health: It’s Time to Talk (2020), aims to shatter harmful stereotypes by harnessing the power of storytelling. Featuring the voices of many men from across the prairies, this book offers honest, impactful conversations about a range of topics including masculinity, mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide.

Check out this short video, where Allan reflects on why the time to talk has now come.  

For a brief preview of the book’s content, take a look at this impactful video that highlights contributor James Siemens. 

You can find further stories featured on Allan’s podcast and YouTube channel

Further Resources

  • Buddy Up, a campaign by the Centre for Suicide Prevention, targets men’s mental health and offers practical strategies for supporting a friend who is struggling.
  • Man Therapy.Org provides a wealth of tools for dealing with tough situations and maintaining wellness. 
  • Wellness Together Canada offers free, live access to trained counsellors and crisis responders:
    • Phone Counselling: 1-866-585-0445 
    • Text (SMS): Text WELLNESS to 741741 
  • The Farmer’s Toolbox offers a thorough and descriptive list of mental health resources for those in agricultural communities, including helplines and support groups for those based in Ontario as well as many online resources accessible anywhere.  
  • The Rural Health Information Hub features links to and information about a range of mental health resources for those living in agricultural communities throughout the United States.

 

Wellness Matters for LGBTQ2IS+ Youth in Rural Communities

Within remote and rural regions of Canada, there are particular challenges facing youth who identify as LGBTQIA2S+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Two-Spirit and additional sexual orientations and gender identities). Studies have shown that LGBTQIA2S+ people experience higher rates of mental health issues, which are heightened by exposure to societal and institutional prejudices. These social ills can be keenly felt within rural areas, where traditional gender norms may be more deeply entrenched and where there may be fewer opportunities to socialize than in urban centres. Responding to these challenges, a growing number of online networks are finding innovative ways for LGBTQIA2S+ youth to share messages of hope and build supportive connections. 

Intersectionality and Mental Health

Developing an awareness of systemic difficulties is the first step to overcoming them. Socio-economic factors such as income and access to resources play a significant role in a person’s mental health, as the Canadian Mental Health Association emphasizes. It’s important to recognize how multiple forms of marginalization (e.g. racism, sexism, poverty, and disability) can converge, a phenomenon known as intersectionality. While everyone’s lived experience is different, the social determinants of health cannot be ignored. In the cases of LGBTQAI2S+ youth, experiences of bullying and alienation may exacerbate mental health challenges. The very process of “coming out” (sharing one’s gender and/or sexual identity with others) might result in rejection, violence, or alienation. 

Geography is a significant factor in shaping identity, and demographic features such as population size can impact how discrimination operates. In 2019, a survey conducted by the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARVAYC) highlighted some sobering trends within rural Canada. Of the 149 trans and/or non-binary youth who participated in the surey, 39% reported experiences of cyberbullying, and 42% reported not getting physical health care when needed because they did not want their parents to know. A recent National Observer article on the mental health struggles of rural youth in the Northern Vancouver Island region underscored the heightened difficulties faced by LGBTQIA2S+ youth during the COVID-19 crisis. 

These systemic issues require targeted interventions, including creating opportunities for young people (both LGBTQIA2S+ youth and their allies) to take an active role in shaping their environment. Online platforms can redefine the way we understand community, and small local initiatives can have a tremendous impact on combating stigma and promoting inclusion. 

Fighting Stigma and Forging Connections

The journey toward a more open-minded, compassionate, and resilient community starts with small, often personal, steps. One way to start changing the culture among young people is to pursue anti-bullying initiatives, such as those promoted by the GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network). Another way is through peer support groups, which can bridge the gaps created by lack of professional support services and empower participants to find and discover their unique strengths. A recent study of how peer advocate programs have supported LGBTQIA2S+ mental health in rural New Mexico has underscored this approach’s effectiveness. Much can be done by approaching emotional and social wellness through the lens of shared personal experiences. 

Increasingly, online platforms are using the power of storytelling to overcome the strain of isolation and alienation. It Gets Better EDU features a variety of personal stories and educational resources designed to support LGBTQIA2S+ youth. This global initiative shares the uplifting, empowering message that all of us, especially those living in more isolated circumstances, need to hear: you are not alone. Another source of connection for LGBTQIA2S+ folks ages 13 to 24 can be found in TrevorSpace, an international community supported through the Trevor Project, based in the United States.

Within Canada, LGBTQIA2S+ youth and their friends and families can find resources, inspiration, and peer support through PFlag Canada, a national organization dedicated to promoting education, acceptance, and community. PFLag’s initiatives are divided into local chapters to help Canadians access practical support that is specific to their region. There are also a growing number of provincial services. The Rainbow Resource Centre provides education, support groups, and counseling to Manitoba’s LGBTQIA2S+ communities, and the LGBT Youthline offers confidential and non-judgemental peer support to young people throughout Ontario (phone, text, or live chat available Sunday to Friday, 4:00pm – 9:30pm). Youth in crisis anywhere in Canada can find support services 24/7 through the Kids Help Phone, which also offers specific resources on identifying and coming out as LGBTQIA2S+.

The wounds of isolation and discrimination are very real, yet still there is hope. Rising numbers of local and virtual communities are sending the messages of courage and strength that can help LGBTQIA2S+ youth find acceptance and happiness, and help all of us work together to build a more open-minded and open-hearted world. 

Quick List of Supports for Rural Canadian LGBTQIA2S+ Youth

Helplines:

Kids Help Phone: https://kidshelpphone.ca/ 

24/7 support for youth anywhere in Canada

Live phone chat: 1-800-668-6868 (available 24/7)

Text (SMS):  686868 (available 24/7)

Live Chat Online Counselling (available 7pm to midnight ET)

*Youth who identify as Indigenous can ask to be connected with a First Nations, Inuk or Metis crisis responder by messaging FIRST NATIONS, INUIT, or METIS to 686868

LGBT Youthline: https://www.youthline.ca/

Peer support for youth anywhere in Ontario 

Available Sunday to Friday, 4:00pm – 9:30pm

1-800-268-9688 or text 647-694-4275

Trans Lifeline: https://translifeline.org/ 

Peer support hotline run by and for trans and questioning people.

 Available 5pm ET to 1am ET, 7 days per week

Phone (Canada): 1-877-330-6363

Phone (US): 1-877-565-8860 

Peer Support, Storytelling, and Community Building:

Trans Care BC Peer Support (includes directory with information about specific community services): http://www.phsa.ca/transcarebc/care-support/peer-community-support/peer-support 

PFlag Canada (National Support with Local Chapters): https://pflagcanada.ca/

Rainbow Resource Centre (Manitoba): https://rainbowresourcecentre.org/

It Gets Better Edu: https://itgetsbetter.org/

TrevorSpace: https://www.trevorspace.org/

Sowing Gratitude, Reaping Goodness: How Thankfulness Benefits Us

When it comes to reducing stress, building connection, and finding fulfillment, there’s no better attitude than gratitude. Studies have consistently shown that thankfulness produces a host of psychological, social, and even physical benefits: it increases positive emotions, decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation, and even strengthens our immune systems. As Lesley Kelly, Co-Founder of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, emphasizes in a recent article, gratitude is a vital element of building resilience and strength within rural communities. 

While the saying “count your blessings” has become somewhat cliche, there are many authentic ways to cultivate gratitude. What’s important is to find practices that are meaningful to you. Integrating gratitude into our daily lives can help us reframe the past, find pleasure in the present, and hope for the future. 

Planting Seeds

The simple act of expressing appreciation—both for yourself and for the people and places around you—goes a long way. Whether spoken, written, or enacted, these messages can change the way we think, feel, and experience life. Consider trying out practices such as these:

  • Say “Thank You” – These simple words often go unsaid, but they can have a huge impact on those around you. Make it a habit to let your family members, friends, teammates, and neighbours know that you value and appreciate them.
  • Keep a Gratitude Journal – A regular routine of recording what you’re grateful for can be a powerful means of cultivating a resilient and hopeful attitude. Try listing three specific things you’re grateful for each day, and see how your thoughts develop over time. 
  • Show Gratitude to Yourself – While we tend to think of gratitude as directed toward others, it’s a gift that you can give to yourself as well. Thinking about or writing down the things that you love about yourself can help you develop a healthy sense of self-esteem that will ultimately allow you to be more effective in caring for others too.
  • Do Random Acts of Kindness – Sometimes, actions speak louder than words. Taking a moment to do something small to brighten someone else’s day can help build a strong sense of community.
  • Live in the Moment – Connecting with the present can help us become aware of good things that would otherwise go unnoticed. This awareness is the essence of mindfulness, which can include a variety of practices beyond meditation. One variation is to take a moment before enjoying a meal to appreciate the food you eat, where it came from, and those who prepared it. You can also practice mindfulness while going about your daily tasks, such as taking a walk. Focusing your awareness on your physical sensations can help you cultivate a deep sense of appreciation for both your own body and the places around you.

Gathering the Harvest

The rewards of thankfulness routines and rituals such as the ones outlined above are fruits that we reap over time. A recent study on gratitude conducted by Joshua Brown (Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University) and Joel Wong (Professor of Counselling Psychology at Indiana University) found that the positive outcomes of thankfulness practices tended to be things that people realized gradually. They also found that the mental health benefits of gratitude slowly but steadily increased, eventually leading to a positive snowball effect. So, if at first it seems that your expressions of thankfulness aren’t getting you anywhere, be patient and be confident that eventually these practices will pay off. 

Gratitude and Grit

Naturally, expressing thanks is easiest when things are going well, but it’s equally if not more important to do during challenging times. According to Dr. Robert A. Emmons (Professor Psychology at the University of California Davis and a leading expert on gratitude), life’s difficulties can provide fertile ground for gratitude. Going through difficult seasons can help us remember not to take things for granted, and recollecting the bad times can help us see how far we’ve come. Furthermore, Emmons notes that there is an important distinction between feeling grateful (which is subject to emotions that are not always under our control) and being grateful (which is a choice that we can make even in the midst of loss). Being grateful doesn’t mean ignoring suffering; it means choosing to put these challenges into a larger, more hopeful context. 

The bottom line is that gratitude is foundational to cultivating a strong sense of overall well-being. It benefits us both as individuals and as members of a larger collective, and it has been shown to have lasting impacts on the brain. Finding ways to give thanks boosts our mental health and makes us better able to enjoy life, come good days and bad days.

Further Resources

Interview with Gerry Friesen, the Recovering Farmer

This past summer, Andrea Paquette, President and Co-Founder of the Stigma-Free Society, interviewed Gerry Friesen, the Recovering Farmer. Today, Gerry shares with us some more about his experiences and core messages as a mental health advocate.

On your website, you identify as “the recovering farmer.” In a few sentences, can you please tell us about that tagline and what it means to you?

In 2007, as our farm was winding down, I identified myself as the Recovering Farmer. I suspect it was done facetiously, but somehow it stuck. It was some years later that I delved into the actual meaning of the name. The dictionary defines recovering as “returning to a previous level of health, prosperity and equanimity.” Equanimity, defined as keeping an evenness of temper even when under stress, is something I continue to struggle with. And perhaps that’s why I am still recovering and not recovered.

What motivates you as a mental health advocate?

Since 2003 I have had my own journey with anxiety and depression. In that time I have dealt with numerous farmers and others, many of them facing similar challenges due to ongoing and increasing stress. As I have interacted with these folks, I have learned that talking and sharing has been helpful for myself. That has given me a real passion to “talk about it” in whatever forum I can. To see others begin the road to recovery invigorates me. To see the stigma decreasing encourages me.

 I understand that your work has involved specifically addressing the stigma that men face regarding mental health challenges. Can you tell us more about this aspect of your work?

Whether it’s a function of upbringing, culture, or society, men have traditionally been hesitant to talk about mental health issues. Oftentimes, and I know I fell into this, men were told to “work” their way out of it. That is the ultimate stigma. So in response men have a tendency to isolate themselves, withdraw from their community and attempt to deal with this on their own. The good news is that through the work of various key organizations such as the Do More Agriculture Foundation, the Stigma-Free Society and Farm Credit Canada, to name a few, the stigma is slowly dissipating.

But more needs to be done. I cannot stress enough how much “talking about it” helps. We learn from each other by sharing our stories. I find that when I open up about my journey, my ways of seeking help and the proven results others open up as well. We learn from each other. We build awareness and understanding of ourselves when we seek help from professionals such as counsellors or therapists.

As has been recognized to the highest echelons of governments, both federally and provincially, there is a continuing need to build on the resources already available. We need to ensure that each and every one of us has the ability to reach out and get the help that is needed. 

Your website describes you as a “humorist.” What have your lived experiences taught you about the power of humour when it comes to talking about mental wellness?

Sometime after my journey of discovery and recovery began, I was sitting by myself watching a sitcom. I started laughing out loud because of something I had seen. My teenage daughter stuck her head around the corner and asked whether I was okay. She told me she had never heard me laugh before.

I found that heartbreaking. I thought I had always had a sense of humour but realized that my mental illness had all but taken that away from me. I decided that day that I needed to laugh more.

Having said that, I now recognize that often people’s experiences of humor vary, and humor serves many different functions in our daily lives. Sometimes we use humor as a coping mechanism when things are not going well, and other times we enjoy a good laugh whether with others or even on our own.

A good hearty laugh reduces stress and anxiety, decreases pain, strengthens resilience, and calms our nervous system. It can turn a negative experience into a positive one. It has the potential to brighten your mood for the rest of the day.

 In a sentence or two, what is the core message that you would like to share with our readers?

There is hope and there is relief. Finding ways to cope, to heal, and to recover is possible. It simply becomes a matter of being aware. Stress, and along with it anxiety and depression, have an insidious way of getting to us, but if we learn to be aware and recognize when our mental health is suffering, we can be proactive in dealing with issues as they arise.

How can we best stay in touch with you?

Whether one on one, through presentations or in interviews I enjoy “talking about it”. Visiting my website at www.gerryfriesen.ca will provide more information on who I am and how best to contact me.

Thanks for taking the time to share with us, Gerry!

 

Tools for Transformation: Peer Support Worker Training

In partnership with Robyn Priest LIVE YOUR TRUTH, the Stigma-Free Society is proud to announce our upcoming Peer Support Worker Training sessions, tailored specifically for rural residents in Canada. This two-day virtual course will be held on November 1st and November 8th (8am – 4pm PDT, 10am – 6pm CDT, 11am – 7pm EDT, with breaks). This training will equip participants to facilitate peer support programs and become leaders in their communities. 

These sessions empower individuals with shared backgrounds to work together to develop wellness-related skills. Taking this training is a great opportunity to find and provide support for mental health, along with those who understand each other’s challenges!

What is Peer Support?

The Mental Health Commission of Canada describes peer support as “a supportive relationship between people who have a lived experience in common.” The benefits of this approach to emotional and social support have been proven time and time again.

One of the most reputable Canadian peer support training providers is Robyn Priest LIVE YOUR TRUTH, an organization that offers online training for both individuals and families. The training focuses on holistic approaches to wellbeing and practical strategies for promoting empathy and communicating effectively. Robyn Priest emphasizes that “peer support isn’t limited to mental health or addiction issues. It can be about anything anyone is going through; about life.” As human beings, we have a deep need for belonging. In addition to bridging gaps in professional mental health services, peer support can help us to build the connections we crave.

Peer Support in Rural Communities

Recent publications from the Mental Health Commission of Canada have emphasized that those living in rural and remote communities face specific challenges when it comes to maintaining wellness. These challenges include a relative lack of professional support services such as psychologists or counsellors. In these contexts, peer support is a great option. Because peer support can be easily done over video chat, it is a highly accessible resource.

No one understands the life and struggles of those living and working in agricultural communities better than those who have that shared experience. Within rural communities, shared experiences might include dealing with loneliness, burnout, stress around crops, unique family challenges, addiction, and so much more.

Robyn Priest herself reflects on the tremendous benefits of speaking with those who understand what you are going through: “I know having moved from the city to a farming community was a culture shock and being able to chat with others who had experienced that, or even just chatting with others who had dealt with dealing with crops, animals, the ever changing seasons, helped enormously. It was like – ahhh you get it.” These shared experiences allow us to empathize from a place of deep understanding. Training as a peer support worker will help you to translate that empathy into compassionate action. 

Key Benefits

Participants will gain an understanding of peer support fundamentals, as well as how to apply them in the contexts of one-on-one support and group facilitation. They will also learn how to share personal experiences in ways that help those facing similar challenges, including tips about demonstrating self-reflection and vulnerability while still maintaining professionalism. 

The training includes discussion and reflection on the importance of self-care as a regular practice. Supporting others can be an emotionally challenging task, making it all the more important to take a holistic approach to your own wellbeing. 

Overall, participants can expect to gain valuable knowledge and skills that will help them to do work that is nourishing, caring, and empathic—as a peer support worker or a support group facilitator, and indeed in all walks of life.

This rewarding work opens up many opportunities to cultivate strong and supportive communities. The possibilities are there for you to discover!

Training and Registration Details

Tailored specifically for rural residents in Canada, this two-day virtual course will take place on November 1st and November 8th (8am – 4pm PDT, 10am – 6pm CDT, 11am – 7pm EDT, with breaks). 

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 will not be refunded and allocated to the Society. 

For more information and to register, please go HERE or email info@stigmafreesociety.com.

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

Combating Isolation in Rural Communities: Tough Realities and Tools for Resilience

Isolation is a formidable challenge, but it can be overcome. Unlike moments of solitude, which may be both peaceful and refreshing, prolonged social isolation is a risk factor for both physical and mental health. While loneliness is something of a universal human problem, it poses particular obstacles within rural communities because access to support services may be more limited here than in urban areas. Furthermore, rural residents tend to be less likely to reach out for help than city-dwellers. However, you do not need to stick it out on your own. Facing these tough realities with gritty determination and forging new partnerships based on local connections can provide powerful tools for resilience. 

Cultivating Awareness

The more we acknowledge the problem of social isolation, the better equipped we become to find effective solutions. Recent publications from the Mental Health Commission of Canada (2020) indicate a growing awareness of the unique challenges faced in rural and remote communities. These challenges may include the need to travel greater distances to find professional services, as well as limited internet bandwidth, which can make it more difficult to take advantage of the growing number of virtual support systems.

Addressing these issues requires collaboration across a range of different sectors, from transportation, to technology, to infrastructure. Such changes involve complex and time-consuming processes. In the meantime, it’s important not to ignore the problem or hope that it will resolve itself. According to the results from a 2018 study conducted by the National Survey of Farmer Mental Health, 35% of Canadian producers met the criteria for depression classification and 58% met the criteria for anxiety classification. Even so, 40% of respondents indicated that they would hesitate to seek professional help due to concerns about how they would be perceived by others. As increasing numbers of people speak out about the very real challenges posed by isolation, the underlying stigma surrounding mental health issues can be slowly yet steadily vanquished. 

Challenging Attitudes

To overcome stigma, we must create an environment where people recognize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength. Doing so can be especially difficult within smaller communities where it may be more difficult to maintain privacy and where there may be an expectation of self-sufficiency. Edward Staples, President of the BC Rural Health network, observes that rural communities not only face “access issues” to mental health care but also have to contend with a common mentality along the lines of “I don’t need anyone’s help.” While hard work and independence can be powerful values, this myth of self-reliance seems likely to do more harm than good. Believing that you have to go it alone can take a tremendous toll. Moreover, such an attitude ignores that human beings, like all living creatures, exist as part of a larger ecosystem. Recognizing this connectivity and reaching out as needed should be seen for what it is: a courageous act of bridge-building.

Building Bridges

Fighting isolation within rural and remote communities requires innovative solutions, and recent success stories indicate that flexible, informal, and place-based approaches tend to work well. Rather than fixate on the challenge, it may be more productive to maintain a positive focus on small opportunities for connection. As suggested by a recent policy brief from the Rural Health Research Centre at the University of Minnesota (2018), volunteer activities like joining a choir or other acts of community service can provide opportunities for bonding based on shared interests, without making the issue of loneliness front and centre. One initiative that has gained global traction since its inception in Australia is the concept of Men’s Sheds. These workshops counter the problem of male loneliness by providing a context for hands-on work with individual or community projects. Another approach involves forming intergenerational connections that connect youth and older adults in relationships of mutual support, such as the AGE to age initiatives that have seen much success throughout northeastern Minnesota. These examples suggest that the key is to think outside the box, to be creative and proactive in seeking opportunities for engagement.

As a growing number of voices join this conversation, we can find even more effective interventions. The social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has brought increased challenges, yet it has also helped to shine a spotlight on this problem. In this moment of imagining a new post-pandemic reality, the time is ripe for action.  

Further Resources

Check out the following initiatives that seek to promote mental health awareness and build community among rural populations in Canada:

LandLogic: Connecting Health and Identity 

LandLogicTM was born in the hallway of my parents’ home as I studied the aerial photo of the sturdy red barn, weathered windbreak, and glistening pond that make up my family’s generational farm.  Seeing this picture reminded me of the peaceful, wide-open spaces, and family closeness that defined my picturesque childhood, as well as my father’s own bout with deep despair as he attempted to manage the harsh realities of sustaining a small farm-ranch operation amid the 1980s farm crisis. 

What if, I thought, agricultural producers could connect with tools to improve their mental health on their own terms instead of suffering like my dad?

The vision behind LandLogicTM is to involve agricultural producers in the design and implementation of an online, interactive platform that allows farmers and ranchers to discreetly access evidence-based therapeutic tools to improve their mental and emotional wellbeing.  This capacity-building model would incorporate the various sectors within the agricultural industry (beef cattle, oilseed and grain, dairy, poultry, fruits and nuts, etc.) with common mental health topics.   

Rather than expecting farmers and ranchers to access behavioral health education through traditional channels where stigma runs high, this resource model would reach producers through their core identity: connection to the land.   

As a descendant of five generations of farmers, I experienced what Dr. Michael Rosmann calls The Agrarian Imperative: an innate connection to land that drives agricultural producers’ industriousness, resilience, and determination to protect it at all costs.  American farmers and ranchers self-reported financial stress, state of the farm economy, farm or business problems, and fear of losing the farm as the top four stressors in their lives.  Whether it be for the satisfaction of producing quality food, overseeing the lifecycle of crops, carefully tending to livestock, or the love of the outdoors, farmers and ranchers continue to endure this difficult life because they love what they do. 

Rural agricultural producers are at a growing risk of debilitating behavioral illness (anxiety, depression, SUD, etc.), and ultimately suicide when compared to their urban counterparts. Mental health deserts in our most rural or impoverished counties perpetuate these disturbing disparities and geographic isolation, cost of services, and gaps in insurance coverage further exacerbate the problem

In addition to structural barriers, there are significant cultural obstacles for farmers and ranchers accessing the behavioral health system through its traditional channels.  Stigmas are high, mental health literacy levels are often low, and existing care approaches do not adequately consider the nuances of agricultural life and culture.  Moreover, providers rarely possess the lived experiences or training to understand the specific challenges that plague agricultural producers. 

That aerial photo of our family farm reminds me that farmers and ranchers have a unique vantage point.  The land by which they experience joy and struggle also offers the ability to experience life through the five senses.  Research shows we retain 10% of our information through reading, 20% through seeing, 30% through hearing, 50% through seeing and hearing, and 80% by doing.   

Clinicians could better serve their clients by integrating the daily aspects of farming and ranching into behavioral health education.  This approach – which may include a research-based certification process for clinicians – could literally save lives. 

LandLogicTM would allow mental health professionals to harness the innovation, industriousness, and creativity of agricultural producers as they solve their own problems, ensuring the health and vitality of future generations.   

It is time to rethink how behavioral health connects with farmers and ranchers.

 

For more information, please email kandersonlmsw@gmail.com or send an Instagram message @kaila.s.anderson

Author: Kaila S. Anderson, LMSW 

M.A.D. by Cheyenne Glade Wilson

When you see the word “mad” what does it mean to you? I used to think of “mad” as being upset about something, but the meaning of “mad” changed for me seven years ago when I began my online health/wellness and coaching business. Even though I’m a fifth-generation rancher who literally lives in the middle of nowhere, I never let my location stop me from growing several businesses. One of the upsides of the internet and social media is that it can connect you to so many people all over the world if you utilize it.

I was suddenly surrounded by all sorts of positive thinking entrepreneurs who introduced new ways of thinking to me. One gal in particular struck me to the core when she told me about achieving goals. She said that she had to get “mad” in order to do anything well. She said “mad” in such a way that I asked her what she meant. She told me that “mad” meant “make a decision”. I was elated as I felt like I had just found Eldorado!

What she said made so much sense to me back then and it still does today. It’s easy to get caught up in the negativity going on around us or even the chaos of the world. We can feel insignificant or even out of control if we sit back and allow ourselves to go down that road. One way that I’ve found to grow beyond situations like that is to make a decision not to go there. Instead, make goals for yourself that scare the heck out of you. Be bold. Dream big. Never give up. You can achieve whatever you set your mind to. See it. Believe it. Achieve it.

We all only get one chance at this thing called life. It’s too important just to sit back allowing others to plan our lives for us. By making a decision about what you want you are signalling to yourself that you will not sit idly by and that you will not give up. There is no quitting…this is your life after all!

So, what is it that you want to do? What are you constantly thinking or dreaming about? What makes you happy? What sets your soul on fire? If you know what it is…awesome! If you don’t…figure it out! When you do, MAKE A DECISION about what you want to do and go do it. Yes, it’s that simple. We can make all the excuses we want in life, but they aren’t going to get you where you want to go. Shut out the noise. Cut down distractions. Don’t listen to naysayers. Listen to your inner voice. It’s telling you what you need to do. Perhaps the first step is to get “mad” about following your heart’s desire.

Just remember at the end of the road only you will look back on your life. Only you will see what you’ve accomplished and only you will feel regret if you don’t fulfill your dreams and goals. Make sure that you will be happy about what you will see. You are the captain of your own ship. Sail in the direction that suits you and do it with a smile on your face!

Cheyenne Glade Wilson is a fifth-generation rancher and a tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. She and her husband and son own and operate the Lazy Six Nine Ranch. They have a cow/calf operation and raise half-draft and draft cross horses specializing in Percheron/Quarter Horse and Gypsy Vanner/Quarter Horse crosses. Cheyenne is also a health/wellness coach and leader, photographer, writer, and blogger. You can find her at www.thenativecowgirl.com and on Instagram/Facebook @thenativecowgirl.

 

Young Agrarians Supports Young and New Farmers in Canada: an Interview with Young Agrarians

What is Young Agrarians? 

Young Agrarians (YA) is the largest educational resource network for new and young ecological farmers in Canada. YA offers farmer-to-farmer programming to grow the next generation of food growers. YA programs work to create access to education, training, land, business mentorship, and resources. The long-term goal of YA is to increase the number of viable and ecological farmers in Canada.”

Why was Young Agrarians created?

“Of the 1.7% of the Canadian population that farm, just 9% are 35 and younger, making up less than 25,000 farm operators (Stats Canada 2016). Cost of land and production are the biggest barriers to entering the sector. Since YA began in January 2012, the network of participating farmers and collaborating organizations has grown at the grassroots level coast-to-coast through farmers organizing and building community, representing over 13,000 participants at 300+ educational events. In 2020 we worked with approximately 1400 farmers at all different stages of their journey info farming and starting farms. Currently, YA programs are focused on Western Canada from B.C. to Manitoba: YA’s Grow-a-Farmer strategy in B.C. engages new, young and potential farmers through resources and opportunities online, brings them together to network and learn together on and off farms year-round, and when ready to start farms, supports them to access land and receive business supports and mentorship from a seasoned farmer. In the Prairies, the program has grown online and through events, as well as an on-farm Apprenticeship Program in Regenerative Agriculture.”

What connection have you noticed between agriculture and mental health? 

“Farmers work really hard. Young Agrarians hears about these challenges from farmers all the time – there is a huge burden on farmers to be superheroes! We know how much loving care farmers put into their crops and animals, but it can be hard to find the time to care for themselves too. Many farmers live in rural areas, which can feel isolating and comes with its own suite of challenges. Young Agrarians appreciates the wonderful resources provided by Rural Mental Wellness, and disseminates them to support farmers to look after their mental health.”

What programs and services do you offer to your members?

“YA operates both online and offline programming to build the food and farm community: 

Business Bootcamp – an online, community-based program to give new and prospective farmers the space and skills to write a stellar business plan to launch the farm of their dreams.

B.C. Land Matching Program – provides land matching and business support services to new farmers looking for land to farm, and landowners interested in finding someone to farm their land. Offers support developing leases and other land agreements.

B.C. Business Mentorship Network that pairs new farms in start-up with experienced mentors. 

Prairies Apprenticeship Program – advanced, hands-on apprenticeships in regenerative agriculture in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.

Event series – regular year-round events ranging from farm tours, webinars, potlucks, and small-scale farming workshops to two-day mixers and more.

Online Resources:

Farmer blog – our website features job and apprenticeship postings, farmer profiles, prospective land to farm, funding opportunities, and more.
U-MAP – a self-serve, crowd-sourced map that aggregates farm resources across Canada.
Online tools – business resources and downloadable tools, such as land lease and license templates and a BC Land Access Guide.

Social media channels

– buzzing networks that share opportunities, experiences, and connect our network across the country. Join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Hashtag #youngagrarians and grow the network with us!” 

“The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust, Bullitt Foundation, Cowichan Valley Regional District, and Patagonia.

Gratitude to all of our amazing funders, sponsors, and donors for making the work we do possible.

All photos by Sara Dent”

Visit the Young Agrarians Website: https://youngagrarians.org/