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!