Province supporting development of mental health app for farmers

An app developed in Saskatchewan meant to help out farmers’ mental health is receiving some support from the Government of Saskatchewan.

On July 2, Innovation Saskatchewan and the Ministry of Agriculture announced they are partnering with a health services company to provide farmers with a new tool to track their mental health and link them with supports.

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The mobile app, developed by Bridges Health in Saskatoon, was selected during a province-wide Innovation Challenge in the spring of 2020, where technology entrepreneurs offered solutions to assist Saskatchewan farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers in actively monitoring their mental health.

“Despite progress made, there is still stigma associated with asking for support when it comes to mental health,” said Tina Beaudry-Mellor, minister responsible for Innovation Saskatchewan. “Having access to an app in the privacy of one’s own home will enhance the likelihood of people asking for help when they need it the most.”

Calls to the Saskatchewan farm stress line doubled in 2018-2019 compared to the previous year and, in 2020, COVID-19 is placing new pressures on people within the agriculture sector. The app – called ‘Avail’ – analyzes wellness data supplied by the user and offers supports including articles, videos and online tips, or more immediate help from a personal support network. It is available for Apple, Android and desktop.

“Saskatchewan producers face unique challenges when it comes to dealing with mental health and we are committed to providing resources and strategies to help support them,” said David Marit, the province's agriculture minister. “We know there is a need for solutions like this and I’m looking forward to working with Bridges Health to provide a resource custom-built for the agriculture industry.”

Bridges Health is a mental health service organization based in Saskatoon. As Innovation Challenge winners, the company receives $10,000 in funding and a 16-week collaboration with government to develop the mobile app.

“As a company founded and based in Saskatchewan, the agriculture sector touches both our business and our families,” said Leon Ferguson, Bridges Health's vice president. “We are honored to have this opportunity to work with government and partners to develop and advance this mental health and overall wellness tool.”

The app allows users to complete check ins and measure their mental, and overall health in a variety of different areas. Beyond physical health, it goes into areas like sleep hygiene and financial well being, stress and anxiety, according to Kyle Anderson, business development consultant with Bridges Health.

The self-assessment will ask 10 different questions, and those questions vary each time. “A sample question might be, ‘Over the last week, I enjoyed time spent with friends and family,’ and then you answer based on a sliding scale from zero to six,” Anderson said.

Self assessment is just one aspect of it. Users will be able to track their wellness over time, noting increases or decreases in their scores.

The app will send periodic reminders to the user for them to make use of it.

“After that, there's a library with articles and videos and tips and suggestions and activities of things that you can do. When that are specifically geared towards all of those, those different areas. So, if I noticed that I wasn't doing well and my stress and anxiety score was low, then I can go through and access all of the different resources, specific distress and anxiety,” Anderson said.

It will tie into specific resources available in Saskatchewan.

Anderson said, “If I was looking to go see a physiotherapist and I'm located in Swift current, I'd be able to search that and see all available physiotherapists, that are within a specific distance to me. If I'm looking to go see a counselor, and I'm located in say Rosetown, there's not many professionals out there. I'd be able to see who offers remote services, virtual or telehealth.”

He added there's a social connection so you can connect with peers and other individuals, and have that social support within the app as well.

Trent Wotherspoon, the NDP Finance Critic said, “Mental health pressures are real rate across Saskatchewan and supports are needed.

“I would welcome the application and recognition that people are struggling with mental health from right across our province, and certainly agricultural producers are facing real mental health challenges. There's been some real important voices identifying that within our province within the agricultural community, and I commend them for that.”

“Ultimately, though, we need to make sure that the province does its part on the other side of the application to make sure that the supports are there.

Wotherspoon said it was important that there are resources, and a person, available, to talk to, that the “wraparound supports, which are often so absent, and often so delayed, or in place to extend the supports that people need when they need them.”

He said it was important “not to leave people in the darkness and despair and depression, that all too often they're being left and right now, due to a lack of timely support and appropriate supports being extended.”

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