Breaking through agriculture's mental health barriers

Farmer and mental health advocate Lesley Kelly

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Farm stress is real, suicide is real, and it’s a part of agriculture.

Farmer and mental health advocate Lesley Kelly made the point on a recent webinar hosted by Beef Farmers of Ontario that drew a virtual crowd of almost 50 people.

The webinar was part of BFO’s ‘Wellness on the Farm’ series that also includes mental health articles in its magazine and a list of resources on the organization’s website.

Kelly, a Saskatchewan-based grain grower, spoke candidly about breaking mental health barriers in agriculture, drawing on her own experiences and using personal examples from her everyday life on the farm.

“This is the time to start to have these conversations,” Kelly said as she asked participants to keep a person in mind that is struggling while she delivered her presentation.

Kelly began by defining the term mental health because, as she pointed out, mental health and mental illness are two different things.

“Mental health is not a choice… it’s part of who you are,” Kelly said.

Recognizing the signs of mental illness isn’t always easy and, in fact, it’s oftentimes complicated. According to Kelly, there are many things that could be beneath the surface or the people living with mental illness might not even recognize it in themselves.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening and it doesn’t mean agriculture is immune. Research out of the University of Guelph showed just how many Canadian farmers are struggling with mental health challenges.

According to the study led by Dr. Andria Jones-Bitton, 35 per cent of those surveyed met the criteria for depression; 45 per cent were classified as having high stress; and 58 per cent met the definition for anxiety.

New research from Farm Management Canada found that 75 per cent of farmers surveyed were classified as having medium to high stress. And meanwhile, farmers in the U.S.

are twice as likely to die by suicide than the rest of the population.

“We know that a lot of our farmers are hurting right now. I hope we can change those numbers together to help break that stigma and reduce the silence,” Kelly said.

Kelly spoke openly about how mental disorders have impacted her family and the toll it has taken on those closest to her.

She, herself, suffered from postpartum depression after the birth of her son, while her husband lives with anxiety. Kelly’s brother has posttraumatic stress disorder and her father, who is battling cancer, is now dealing with mental health challenges as a result of his disease.

Kelly and her husband had a frank and honest conversation about some of these issues a few years back and decided to post it online. The video was viewed over 100,000 times across the world.

We “realized farmers had been wanting to talk about this and were looking for outlets and resources,” Kelly said.

Breaking down barriers is an important part of this conversation, as well, and on that note Kelly outlined five ways to do so.

Firstly, Kelly said it’s important to remember that mental health challenges are different for everyone.

She told the story of Kelly Scanlan, a former soldier in Afghanistan, who shared her mental health journey on video as part of the Bell Let’s Talk campaign.

In this video, Scanlan said something that changed Kelly’s way of thinking forever and that was “mental health is not a competition.”

“People drown in oceans and people drown in pools and people drown in bathtubs and everyone just has to stop worrying about how much water someone’s drowning in and just focus on the fact that someone’s drowning,” Scanlan said in the video.

Kelly said her husband stopped sleeping when his anxiety worsened. He was irritable, had panic attacks and had a difficult time making day-to-day decisions on the farm.

Kelly would become quite emotional during her postpartum depression; she stopped texting her friends, stopped going out, and stopped eating.

“If someone is outside of their normal for that long, lasting two weeks, it’s intense or negatively starting to impact other things, that’s when you can have that conversation,” Kelly said.

But how do you start a conversation like that? One potential way, Kelly said, is to “say what you see.”

“It can be hard, upsetting and awkward,” Kelly said but if you start with what you see that can help.

Showing you care is the third way to break barriers and this is done through kindness, compassion and empathy.

“It wasn’t until seeing my family and walking a mile in their shoes until I really understood. It’s about having less judgment,” Kelly said.

It’s helpful to stay away from comments like “suck it up” or “man up” or “they’re just lazy.”

Instead, say things like “I am here for you” or “I hear you” or “you are not alone.”

Listening, Kelly said, is critical too and that’s why she presented it as the fourth way to break barriers.

She talked about how listening can be lifesaving. She said that one of the first-ever panel discussions on mental health in agriculture took place at FarmTech in Edmonton.

Kelly, who was one of the panelists at the conference, had hoped that even 12 people would show up but by the time the presentation began, 400 chairs were filled with more sitting in the aisles and standing in the back.

There was a farmer in the crowd who looked to be about 75-years-old and “during the presentation he put his head down and… cried the whole time,” Kelly said.

After the talk was over, this same gentleman approached the panelists and thanked them. He told them they had just saved his life and he was going to go home and talk to his wife.

“He didn’t have to share what he was going through. It was just the fact that he was listening,” Kelly said.

That being said, listening is a hard life skill, especially under stressful situations, but rephrasing, summarizing and clarifying can help if and when someone comes to you for support.

Knowing your role is the fifth and final way Kelly offered to break barriers when it comes to mental health in agriculture.

Kelly’s mom quietly slipped her son-in-law a card from a mental health crisis hotline and that was one way she showed her support. Meanwhile, Kelly’s family put mental health on the agenda when they have their farm meetings. Check-ins are now done on a regular basis.

If you would like to learn more about Beef Farmers of Ontario’s ‘Wellness on the Farm’ series, or are in need of mental health resources, check out: https://www.ontariobeef.com/services/wellness-on-the-farm.aspx

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