Empathy, listening skills key elements of farmers’ mental health program

A new mental health program for farmers called In The Know is being piloted this month in Ontario.

Three versions of the program — developed over the past year at the University of Guelph with PhD candidate Briana Hagen and the guidance of a 30-member advisory committee consisting of farmers, veterinarians, mental health experts and adult education specialists — will be available in 2019.

The first version, a four-hour in-person workshop, is being road tested now, with the goal of having it ready by early 2019.

Deborah Vanberkel, a dairy farmer from Lennox and Addington County with professional training in mental health management, is leading the pilot sessions. It’s envisioned she will hold five sessions throughout the province, with up to 25 participants who actively engage with farmers in each session.

Feedback from this pilot will be used to finalize the workshop content and to further develop the full-day workshop, which should be ready by the spring.

These will be followed by an eight-module online version sometime in the late spring or early summer.

Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, the program’s academic director, says the three pillars of the program are knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours related to mental health for farmers.

Based on the advisory committee’s recommendations, specific parts of the curriculum will involve an understanding of mental illness (such as its impact on the workforce), common conditions including stress, anxiety, depression, and suicide, conversations about recognizing someone at risk, empathy, and active listening. Vignettes and common realistic scenarios will be used to give participants the opportunity to put their learning into action, says Jones-Bitton.

“We’re not trying to make people counsellors,” she says “This is about how to be an ally and lend an ear, to recognize when someone is struggling, and to say something.”

She anticipates active listening to be an area that receives a great deal of attention.

“When we hear someone explain a problem, we sometimes have a tendency to try to fix it, rather than just letting them talk,” she says. “Talking is important for people struggling with their mental health. Listening can be incredibly helpful. We really need to actively listen, empathize, and let them talk it out.”

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Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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