People in rural communities with limited access to mental health care can use the phone as the first step to reach a crisis intervention program, says Cynthia Beck, a farmer and university student completing her Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. She plans to finish graduate school and become a registered clinical psychologist working in rural Saskatchewan.
“For the past six years I’ve provided rural suicide intervention response covering southeastern Saskatchewan,” says Beck, who is also part of a family farming operation near Regina. “I am an independent, but people find me by word of mouth. Many people who call do not yet have an active plan for suicide, but some do. They reach a point where they know they need to make a change.”
Beck tries to help people identify reasons to make a life plan, instead of seeing only a death plan.
“I help people identify their options, and that it’s their choice on which plan they go with. By helping people recognize they have choices, it opens up more possibilities and gives them back a sense of control. Generally, people who are in that place of raw desperation feel hopeless and feel they have lost control.
“I help them work on a life plan and guide them toward services that can help. Depending on how severe their suicide risk is, it might mean they need to go to a hospital that night to seek medical services, or at least somehow get them worked into the health care system.”
Voice of experience
Beck, who returned to university to study psychology, says she wanted to do something to be part of the solution in providing rural mental health services.
“My husband and I farm, so I’m familiar with the challenges producers face. I went through my own difficulties with mental health. Today, when people phone and say they have to do something because the pain has to end and they don’t know what their options are, other than killing themselves, I can relate. I’ve been there.”
Beck is a research assistant in the Online Therapy Unit, based out of the University of Regina. Her Master’s supervisor Dr. Heather Hadjistavropoulos created the first online therapy clinic in Canada. Her program is based on cognitive behaviour therapy. The unit receives research funding through the Government of Saskatchewan and the online Wellbeing Course, designed to help people deal with anxiety and depression, is free of charge for Saskatchewan residents.
“The basis of my research is tailoring the Wellbeing course to farmers so the information they are presented with — like coping strategies and management skills — can be applied to their farming lifestyle or help them tackle key stressors that many farmers face,” Beck says.
“Farmers/ranchers live and work in a stressful environment where we have little control over some of what goes on in their lives including weather, markets, input costs, machinery costs and calf prices. There are also accidents and freaky bad luck. There will always be challenges — including mental health challenges — to overcome.
Beck’s background as a farmer has helped her tailored the program to the rural community.
“Right up until COVID, farmers were unique in that we live where we work, and we work where we live,” she says. “There is no separation between work life and personal life; it all blends together. In the past year with COVID, and many more people being asked to work from home, more of society may be experiencing a similar lack of separation between work and home life, and they have to juggle it all together.”
Beck says there has been a big surge in research into mental health challenges faced by the farming population. “And that’s great, because it’s hard to provide services to a population or an industry that many policy and decision-makers don’t have much experience with.”
Beck says many producers face unique barriers to accessing mental health care that sometimes people in mainstream health may not be aware of. People with a nine-to-five job can usually just say they have a doctor’s appointment, take a couple of hours off, or take a sick day or holiday time. They still earn an income, but for people in agriculture it’s not all that easy to get away, especially at busy, high-stress times of the year.
“Taking a day off to drive two hours to see a mental health practitioner may not be feasible during high production seasons,” Beck says. “We need to define what accessible means. Many people think if mental health services are available, it also means they are accessible. But it can be like me saying to a person in a wheelchair that there’s a bathroom on the third floor, but no elevator to the third floor. The bathroom is available, but not accessible. It can be similar with mental health services.”
She says if anyone needs support, they need to find out what help is available and accessible. Social media provides an opportunity to connect with others, helping decrease some of the isolation faced in agriculture. Many communities now have crisis services or mental health supports, and people can also talk to their family doctor for more information. The internet has information and strategies for mental health. There are also online therapy programs.
May says that starting in May, she hopes to research how to use the Online Therapy Unit as an additional resource for Saskatchewan farmers. One positive aspect of the pandemic is that it has increased accessibility of some aspects of mental health services because many providers are now delivering services via telephone or online.
“When people are struggling, it can be difficult to have the energy to search for services, but many people have access to the internet,” she says. “Even if they can search for mental health services in their area, or crisis services/crisis lines, depending on where they live, there are some available; you just need to know where to look for them. Also, ask your family physician to point you toward available services.”
Beck says mental health awareness and openness among farmers and rural communities have come a long way in the past few years. “People today are more willing to talk about mental health, and some are even posting things on social media. This is where I’m seeing some big differences… People share information about themselves and their experiences which often will help someone else.”
For more information:
- The Online Therapy Unit at onlinetherapyuser.ca.
- 211.ca — a national United Way initiative that connects people in every province to mental health services.
- The Canadian Mental Health Association as well as provincial farm stress lines including the Alberta Mental Health Stress Line 1-877-303-2642; the Saskatchewan Farm Stress Line: 1-800-667-4442; in Manitoba the Klinic Crisis Line: (24/7) Toll free: 1-888-322-3019; and in British Columbia 310Mental Health Support (310-6789).