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Reaching out

Your neighbour is diagnosed with depression. What do you say next time you meet?

When it comes to talking about mental health, there’s a shift taking place in agriculture. Producers are bravely sharing their stories at farm meetings and on social media. Corporations and organizations are creating supportive resources. All this is helping to reduce the stigma around mental health.

With the incredibly high levels of stress farmers face every day, it’s a much-needed change. A survey on farmer mental health by the University of Guelph in 2016 painted an alarming picture: 35 per cent of producers met the criteria for depression, 45 per cent were classified as having high stress, and 58 per cent met the criteria for anxiety.

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Sadly, 40 per cent of farmers responding to the survey said they would feel uneasy about seeking professional help due to concerns about what people may think.

The good news is that rural communities also have a reputation for lending a helping hand. We want to support those in our communities who may be struggling.

What signs should we be watching out for? And what should we do if we are concerned? These are the questions I posed to Deborah Vanberkel, a psychotherapist in Napanee, Ont., who actively operates a dairy farm with her husband.

Vanberkel describes a few of the signs that a person may be struggling with a mental health condition. If a person’s appearance becomes unkempt, if a regular churchgoer stops attending, or if they’re not caring for their farm property as well as they usually do, these could be signs that stress levels have escalated beyond what someone is able to cope with.

Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, anxiety, anger, a lack of motivation and sleeping too much or too little can also be indicators of a problem.

What should we do if we think a neighbour or friend may have reached a point where they are unable to manage the stress and negative emotions?

It can be uncomfortable because you aren’t sure what to say or do, but Vanberkel recommends a four-step approach when reaching out to someone you think may be struggling, or if you’ve heard they’ve received a diagnosis of a mental health condition.

“Put yourself in their shoes, be empathetic,” says Vanberkel. Show you care by checking in with them. Ask them: “How are things? Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?” Let them know you are really there for them.

Then really listen to them. “The biggest form of support you can offer is to really listen,” she says. “Give them your full attention, put your phone on silent.”

The next step is to show your support. “Reassure them that you are there for them,” she says. “Be kind, be genuine.”

Finally, help them find the resources and services they need.

What shouldn’t you do? “Don’t judge them. Don’t tell them to ‘get over it,’ or that ‘things could be worse,’” says Vanberkel.

Avoid asking them directly if they are depressed, and don’t make assumptions about what’s going on. There could be many possible explanations for the changes in their behaviour, she says.

And if the person doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on or how they are feeling, Vanberkel says you should respect that. “But remind the person that you are available to listen if they need it.”

The language we use when talking about mental health also makes a difference, says Vanberkel. We don’t stigmatize those suffering from cancer, diabetes or heart disease, and likewise we shouldn’t stigmatize those living with a mental health condition.

Avoid defining a person by their diagnosis. Instead of “Frank’s depressed,” say “Frank has depression.” Instead of “Joan is OCD,” say “Joan has OCD.”

Instead of saying “someone is suffering from mental illness,” it’s better to say “someone who has a diagnosis of…” or “someone who is being treated for…” or “someone who lives with…”

Replace “committed suicide,” with “died by suicide.”

Don’t refer to people with a mental health diagnosis as crazy, nuts, schizo, psycho, etc.

Avoid misusing medical terms such as saying someone “has OCD” because they are extremely organized, “bipolar” because they change their minds frequently, or “depressed” because they are feeling down. These terms should be reserved for describing actual psychiatric diagnoses with specific criteria.

Megz Reynolds, a grain farmer from southwestern Saskatchewan, agrees the language we use when we talk about mental health is important. “We need to normalize the conversations around it,” she says, pointing out that we shouldn’t be treating it any differently than having a physical health issue. “We need to have the conversations so we can end the stigma. That stigma can keep us from seeking help.”

Sometimes just changing a few words can make the difference between sounding judgmental or negative to a more supportive, constructive positive statement, says Reynolds. That’s the gist of the It Starts with Me campaign from the Do More Ag Foundation, a national non-profit organization which champions mental well-being in the ag community. Launched a year ago, the organization, says Reynolds, “is a collective voice saying, we need to make a change.”

Your first step

Ask more

Don’t be afraid to ask someone how they are. Reach out to someone in a meaningful and genuine way to ask how they are doing. If you have noticed prolonged or progressive changes to someone’s “normal” over a long period of time, it’s okay to ask if they would like to talk and to let them know you’re there as a support for them. You can start a conversation by saying “Hey, I’ve noticed some changes lately and I am wondering if you’d like to talk” or “Are you okay?”

Listen more

You don’t have to be an expert to listen. Being an ear to listen can go a long way, and sometimes that is all someone needs. Most importantly, always remember to only support within your means and skill.

Try to listen without judgement and without interrupting with solutions; listening doesn’t mean fixing. Be mindful of your reactions and expressions, both verbal and nonverbal when someone is sharing their experiences or challenges with you.

Be compassionate and encouraging. Be supportive of someone’s efforts to seek professional support. This support can take many forms: you can refer them to resources you’re aware of, offer to call a crisis number with them, or even offer to accompany them to an appointment.

(Source: Do More Ag Foundation “How to Do More Toolkit”)

How to help your community

Get trained on how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and how to help.

  • Mental Health First Aid courses are available through the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Visit
  • 4-H Healthy Living Initiative. Beginning spring 2019, 4-H Canada will deliver webinars and workshops, assist in the creation of resources to train volunteer leaders, and offer resources that help recognize youth in distress and provide the access to support they need.
  • In the Know — A Mental Health Literacy Training program, tailored to address the needs of the agriculture industry, is expected to be available by late spring or early summer 2019.

Raise awareness in your community.

  • A presentation package with slides and speaking points that anyone can deliver in their community is available from the Do More Ag Foundation.
  • Share this powerful video by Do More Ag on changing the language we use around mental health.


  • Farm Credit Canada resources include an information sheet with tips for dealing with stress and the Rooted in Strength: Taking Care of Our Families and Ourselves mental health resource guide
  • A List of Crisis Lines and other resources are available from the Do More Ag Foundation, a Canada-wide not-for-profit organization championing the mental well-being of all Canadian producers.
  • Call 911 or go to your local emergency department if someone is in crisis and in need of immediate help.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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