by Heather Jones
Post-traumatic distress disorder, parent-child conflicts, and suicide were some of the issues Prince Edward Island farmers had to cope with in 2018.
But they had help from the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture (PEIFA).The PEIFA’s Farmer Assistance Program helps 80 to 100 farmers or farm family members every year. Between 185 and 200 interviews are conducted annually by professional counsellors.
The service is “100-percent confidential,” PEIFA executive director Robert Godfrey is quick to point out. “It is completely anonymous to the federation.”
The counsellors have a wide variety of experience in a range of problem areas (see sidebar), he explained. Last year, they had more than 90 clients and conducted 194 interviews.
Godfrey said he thinks the stigma around mental health has receded. “I think society is starting to recognize that you can have an ailment that can be seen like a broken leg, but it’s the unseen injury that has been unrecognized for a very long time.”
He continued, “There’s an image that a lot of us carry around of a farmer who has a ‘we can take it’ and a ‘that’s just life’ or a ‘we don’t need help’ kind of an attitude. And that image is starting to erode. People know it’s important to take care of not just your physical but your mental health as well. We need to be talking openly about the problem issues. And that it’s OK to reach out. It’s imperative in some cases that you reach out and find that professionally trained listening ear that can help you work through some of your issues.”
Godfrey understands the importance of the Farmer Assistance Program. For instance, he said he received a phone call one time from a PEIFA member on a Friday around 5:30 p.m. “The member said, ‘I’m with this individual and I don’t know what to do for (them). I’m really worried. They’re talking about suicide and I need to do something. I know you have a service that does counselling.’
“I suggested I would do what I could,” Godfrey recalled. “I phoned the Farmer Assistance Program number and they answered. At 5:30 on a Friday, not many people answer their phones. I explained the situation. The counsellor asked me for the (member’s) phone number. I gave it to him.
“I got a phone call the following Monday morning from the same member who’d called me Friday night. The member said, ‘Thank you. I don’t know what happened or transpired in that conversation with the counsellor, but the person has really turned the corner. I want to thank you so much for that.’
“My response was, ‘I did nothing. The program is there and I’m really happy that it works.’”
Godfrey said, “I had another member call me just out of the blue to tell me that their family was using the program and that it had really helped them come through a tough time.”
Trained professionals have counselled 840 clients and conducted 1,268 interviews since the Farmer Assistance Program was introduced in October 2004. The service has been jointly sponsored by the provincial Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the PEIFA. Godfrey said the department covers the majority of the cost for the sessions (Farm Credit Canada made a contribution to the program in the last fiscal year), and the remainder is covered by the federation.
“The first six interviews (valued at $100 per interview) are 100-percent free for PEIFA members and their families,” said Godfrey. “The service is also available at half price for farmers who are not PEIFA members and their families.”
Godfrey said the counsellors tell him they are usually able to identify what needs to be done during the six free sessions. “They’ll recognize if there’s a need for medication, if there’s a need for more sessions, and they’ll recognize if it’s beyond their level of expertise,” he said. “They recognize the limitations those six free sessions can provide. But those six free sessions are really important.”
He said the program has generated positive feedback from PEIFA members, and has also earned respect from national and international farm organizations.
“And it has probably saved lives,” said Godfrey. “Outside of the regular programming that we provide and the great work that we do at the federation, I am very proud to say that we have the Farmer Assistance Program there for people to use. Because farming is not easy. You’re often at the mercy of Mother Nature or other variables that are out of your control. And sometimes it’s hard.
“I think it takes courage to pick up the phone and not everybody wants to do that,” said Godfrey. “There are gaps that still remain. That is evident in the fact that last spring there were two suicides – two farmers took their own life. It was very sad. It tells me that we have a long way to go. I don’t think that this program is reaching everyone.
“I think there’s more that can be done. And I’d certainly encourage anyone who is in need of a listening ear or knows someone who does not seem themselves to look at this program. It’s what it is there for. It has helped many people over the years and it can help you too.
“We’ve had an awful fall,” said Godfrey. “There are over 10,000 acres of crops still sitting in the ground today. It’s minus 22 outside and those crops will never be harvested. Think of the financial strain that will cause certain operations and the stress it will cause some people. Anyone who’s experiencing that stress and wants someone to speak to should know that the PEIFA has the Farmer Assistance Program in place and that they should pick up the phone.”
The number is 902-626-9787 or 1-800-736-8006 toll-free.