The First Sixteen Podcast - EP 014

The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s new podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada’s agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! A new episode is published each month.

Episode 014 - Mental health: UPA’s work to break the stigma

In this third episode on mental health, we explore the topic from the perspective of a trade union. We speak with Marcel Groleau, President of Quebec’s Agricultural Producers Union (UPA), who tells us about the resources available to producer. From overcoming mental health challenges, to breaking the stigma, he shares insights into the unique programming developed in Quebec.


Marcel Groleau: So when I say I trust young people, almost all young people will go through an agricultural school, the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire—the agri-food technology institute—or universities. So when young people arrive on the farm, they already have a network, because they’re in school with people who will share the same trade and the same profession as them. The other thing is that more and more women are taking over farm businesses. So it’s less and less a male environment. This is a good thing. It brings a new dynamic to the farming community. These are all conditions, in my opinion, that will promote the success of farm businesses, but will also ensure that people are less isolated when they encounter psychological problems.

Sara: Welcome back to The First 16 Podcast. I am Sara Boivin-Chabot.

Kirk: And I am Kirk Finken.

Sara: We have now dedicated three episodes to mental health. We have done so because dialogue and action on mental health is critical to the overall health and resilience of our sector.

Kirk: In our other two episodes, we spoke with a mental health professional who specializes in caring for farmers. We spoke with a farmer who has dealt with depression and is now a mental health care worker herself.

Sara: Today we look at the issue from the perspective of professional associations. This interview with Marcel Groleau, President of the Quebec Union of Agricultural Producers, really helps us complete a 360 degree view of the issue.

Kirk: Mr. Groleau also shares with us some insights into the unique programming that has been developed in Quebec.

Sara: Thank you for joining us. We know that there are stressors in our industry that impact agricultural producers and their mental health. What are those stressors?

Marcel Groleau: We all go through stressful times in agriculture, because we often work with the unpredictable, and unpredictability creates anxiety. The weather, am I going to harvest or not, because they say the weather will be good for 24 hours, maybe 36, but it’s not certain. What do I do? So... For animals, for pig farmers, for example. An animal is sick. Is it contagious? Or a vegetable producer sees either bad weather or an insect outbreak arriving in a field. You live a lot with unpredictability. And that’s without mentioning the unpredictability of the markets with their fluctuating prices. So we’re in a very stressful environment.

Sara: How is the Union des producteurs agricoles involved in mental health among producers?

Marcel Groleau: First, we are involved with ACFA—Au coeur des familles agricoles—to hire row workers in each of our regions. Our regional federations hold fundraising activities and solicit funds from municipal and local stakeholders to support the funding of these resources, which are available to farmers and farm families in the region.

For example, in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region, we now have two resources. In the National Capital region, we have succeeded in expanding a network of workers over the territory, firstly, to help families that are having difficulties. After that, we do a lot of awareness raising, because we first had to break the taboo of mental health issues or stress problems. Farmers were not in the habit of complaining about having mental health issues or psychological distress or whatever. So we had to break that taboo. Then, if I may… Concrete actions. we also trained several hundred sentinels with the help of the Ordre des psychologues, Quebec’s college of psychologists. We set up a training program, and the producers, for example the milk transporters, the veterinarians, the people who work on farms who were interested received this training to be able to intervene with the farmers, maybe to detect signs and to advise the farmers to go and seek help or let them know that there is help available if things aren’t going well. So those are the three main actions that have been taken over several years: breaking the taboo, training sentinels, and providing workers in the territory to be able to intervene directly with farm families.

Sara: What is the role of a case worker?

Marcel Groleau: The role of the case work is... Well, for example, if a sentinel detects someone who is having trouble, the row worker will contact the family or will respond to a call or a request. They’ll go to the site and analyze the situation. They’ll try to find the cause of the stress or the difficulties experienced by the farmer. It can be family issues as well. The first thing is to get people to talk, to listen and then to direct them to the appropriate resources, for the people who... for whom it would be justified to have additional services, additional support. So, the row worker is a bridge between the services offered by the networks, the health networks and the farming community, which requires leaving the farm. It’s an environment where there aren’t always neighbours.

Sara: Are they social workers?

Marcel Groleau: Yes. They’re trained as social workers. They have to be professionally trained to be able to play this role because they have to be able to get the person to talk and be an active listener.

Sara: Then you say that there are some in each territory of Quebec, in each administrative region.

Marcel Groleau: That’s right. The government of Quebec has provided four hundred thousand dollars to ACFA. And ACFA has other funding, other sources of funding, as well. It’s this funding, in conjunction with fundraising, that the regional federations of the UPA in each of the regions, this network, uses to hire these row workers. As they are part of a network, the row workers can also rely on each other. They can also form a team and get backup if there are more serious issues for a farmer or a family. It is also important for these workers not to be isolated, to be part of a network. At the UPA, we chose to work with ACFA, which already had the expertise to administer a network like that, rather than starting up a professional mental health resource service in each of the regions in parallel with what they do. So far, it’s working very well, and the farmers who use their network are very satisfied.

Sara: And then the network, the sentinel program, in more detail, what is it?

Marcel Groleau: The Sentinel program is… when we first started, we did a lot, we held symposiums, published articles, and appeared on TV and radio to talk about mental health and break the taboo of mental health. But we realized that there was a health issue in the farming community that was not well known… and that people had difficulty recognizing it for themselves, and also in seeking outside services. The college of psychologists, with whom we were in contact, suggested this approach. So we have a lot of people who come and go on our farms: input vendors, veterinarians, inseminators, milk collectors. These are people who occasionally come to our farms, who know us well. What if these people were trained to detect when a problem occurs? Because, first of all, we wanted to make sure, because there was a suicide issue. The suicide rate was higher among farmers—according to statistics—than in the general population. So we wanted to intervene first to prevent people from taking irreparable action. So, we trained sentinels with the help of the college of psychologists to detect problems more easily if they arise and to advise farmers to seek services. Maybe that way, we may never know, but these sentinels have deeper sensitivity because they have been trained on the signs that can be detected in someone who is suffering from psychological stress or distress or mental health problems. So that’s how we… And it was recognized as an important step that we took. Because at the same time, when we train these people, we make the whole community aware.

Sara: Is this training still ongoing and still offered?

Marcel Groleau: Yes. A psychologist gives the training to these 7 or 8 people. The training lasts 8 hours if I’m not mistaken.

Sara: Then is the training adapted for an agricultural environment.

Marcel Groleau: Yes, that’s right, because in the farming community, as you often know, we can’t leave our farms. And the training, well if it’s harvest time, seeding time, where the stress is higher, it’s normal that a farmer might be more impatient. But it’s not necessarily because there’s a mental health problem, it’s because they are going through a stressful period. You don’t want to alarm the farmer and the services unnecessarily either. So you have to be able to distinguish between someone who really has a problem and someone who is experiencing a normal stressful situation in the context of farm operations. The training is really adapted to agricultural production and the rural environment.

Kirk: You have said the word taboo a couple of times. What can it mean for a producer? What do you think this taboo is?

Marcel Groleau: It’s mainly, I would say, men rather than women that have difficulty admitting that they have a problem. They are seen as resilient, combative people. So the image that we have of farmers, it’s not someone who is going to admit that there are problems with psychological distress or mental health. So, I wanted to help farmers realize that they are not immune to this kind of problems and that it’s not abnormal that it happens to them, because it can happen to anyone. And even more so for someone who is under a lot of stress because of their profession, because of their job. So we had to break this taboo. Today, we have testimonies from farmers who tell us that, even if they knew they had problems, they didn’t dare talk about them for that reason. But now, things have changed a lot, because we have testimonies from farmers who will stand up in front of rooms, in front of audiences, and say: “Don’t wait. Get help. I’ve been there. Be smarter than me, don’t wait until you’re at the end of your rope. Get help before then.” By giving the floor to people who have lived through this, we have succeeded in demystifying the situation and lifting the taboo around it.

Kirk: So it gives a strength to break this taboo and to go through it.

Marcel Groleau: Yes, that’s it. It’s a bit like I was explaining, because when you’re able to talk about it publicly, it’s because you’ve freed yourself from the pressure that it represented, because you’re able to share it, that pressure. And, it’s also important within a couple. If we can talk about it, we can share. If we want the couple to help us in a situation like that, we are able to share what we feel at that level. So that’s a message too. But it’s also true for women; in agriculture they also experience stress. Sometimes it’s a family thing. It’s not always related to the farm itself. There can be an issue in the family, with the children. Women still take care of the children a lot, and I think even more so in agriculture. I think because it’s very time consuming to work on a farm, so one of the two of them almost always has to be working on the farm. So often the woman has to deal with the children and has few resources to share what she’s experiencing. But it becomes an issue for the family and the farm. It’s the family nucleus that breaks down. And in there, that’s what… As much as we say to men, “stop thinking you’re Superman,” we say to women, “go get help.” This education, finally, is the key to success. Because now, these people seek the resources that exist and get help. And it’s appropriate help for the agricultural sector as well. Because someone who lives on a dairy farm can’t spend four days in the hospital while in crisis. That’s not possible if there’s no one at home. We need to find solutions to treat people in their workplace and while they are working. That’s what it’s all about. And we have made the health community aware of this reality, which was not always the case, because people in the health community don’t necessarily know the realities of the farming community.

Sara: Are the young farmers you meet talking more openly about mental health?

Marcel Groleau: Yeah, well I would say they’re aware that it exists first, then they have a more balanced life. There are a lot of farmers who saw a vacation as optional. Today, farmers understand that a vacation is important. Taking a break is important. You can hire someone to fill in. And young people know it. Because often it’s overwork that leads to health problems. People are too ambitious. Overwork, overly-ambitious projects. The weather that won’t cooperate. As problems are added, the pressure mounts. It becomes too much to handle. I find that young people are better equipped to deal with that. That’s my perception. I hope I’m not wrong, but I see them in our meetings. And when I see them in the meetings, I find that they’re better equipped than we are.

Sara: You talked about the difficulties of farm succession. Could you elaborate on how this is a mental health issue?

Marcel Groleau: So in the life of a farm family, the most difficult time, if they’re not prepared, is the transfer of the business to the next generation. Yes, there are parents who will fall into depression after the transfer because they don’t feel welcome on the farm or because of the way the transfer happened. Sometimes it’s between brothers or sisters as well, it’s just that there’s more than one person who wants to take over, but the farm won’t allow it. It’s hard. If the parents have not prepared a little nest egg for retirement, or the company is not able to give them a sufficient price or a sufficient pension. There are both human and financial issues at stake. These are very difficult times. And that’s where you often have to go, not to seek help for the psychological distress, but to seek help to be guided through this transfer. And this help exists in all regions of Quebec. There are services offered to farmers, to young people, to guide them in the transfer of the farm at the human, social, financial and fiscal level. But there too, people have to go and find services, but I tell them to prepare for that time. You have a child working on the farm. Do you see who is interested? You see that there’s potential, so don’t wait until he’s 30 years old before talking about transferring. Preparing, ideally, preparation happens over the course of about 10 years.

Sara: The work in mental health is not just in waiting for problems, but in prevention.

Marcel Groleau: That’s right. Prevention means getting help, but also looking for workers. I already know that people will tell me, “but, Groleau, there are no people to work on the farms.” They’re right. That’s one of the big problems we have here. And we’re working to make it possible for foreign workers to be hired by groups of farms rather than by one farm. So, if one foreign worker is hired by three farms or if three farms hire two foreign workers and want to share their time, they can do that, and it’s easier for them to take some breaks occasionally. So, get professional help, because there are lots of tax and accounting professionals. Veterinarians too. When you go and call on professionals, you unburden yourself, take away the stress. And that’s what we have to do. But once again, there are some who will say, “but the veterinarian isn’t available in our region.” Because in Abitibi, there was a period when there were no veterinarians. So, can you imagine the stress for producers in this region? The veterinary service in Abitibi is provided by a clinic in Centre-du-Québec, and there’s a rotation every two weeks. But there’s a veterinarian who goes there to practice for that. The public doesn’t always see it, but in the regions and in rural areas, we do not have the services. In the more remote regions, we don’t have the services that producers in Centre-du-Québec have. And that adds to the stress experienced by farmers in these regions.

Kirk: I just want to ask one last question: If there's a message, a short message you want to send to the producers about this?

Marcel Groleau: First, to have the humility to accept that it can happen to us and to have the strength to seek out resources to help. That’s the message. To be humble, humble enough to say that it can happen to me. And to be strong enough to reach out for help.

Kirk: And, if there's a really hard-headed producer? So what do you tell that producer?

Groleau: Look, I’ll tell him to think about his family, because the problems that he has can get to the point where it impacts his family, it impacts his children. I’ll tell him to think about his children. If thinking about himself is too difficult, I’ll tell him to think about his children. I’ll tell him to think about the future too, because if he doesn’t get through it… the only way to participate in the future is to be there. So if he wants to participate actively in it, he has to be healthy. So, to think about his children, to think about his family and to think about the future.

Kirk: That`s a great message to end on.

Sara: Our First Sixteen podcast series is for innovators and change agents. The people we've been talking with about mental health are change agents. They are tackling an issue that is full of stigma and barriers. They are breaking the silence.

Kirk: And, by continuing this dialogue, by taking action, our industry can emerge and evolve stronger than ever.

Sara: Kirk and I are grateful for the privilege of participating in this dialogue. And we thank you for listening.

Kirk: So, until next time, you know what to do, right?

Sara: Right. Try something new.

Kirk: Exactly.

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Episode 014 - Mental health: UPA’s work to break the stigma

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