Prairie farmers invest a great deal of time and energy each year into sustainable food production.
But is all that effort and investment taking a toll on their well-being?
How much time and energy do farmers invest into sustaining their own mental health?
These are questions that Allan Kehler wants to address.
Kehler, an author and motivational speaker, has been dealing with mental health issues since he was a high school kid growing up in Drake, Sask.
He suffered in silence for many years and used different strategies and substances to cope with his pain, including alcohol and prescription drugs.
His path toward wellness didn’t take root until he opened up and began sharing his story with others who were facing similar challenges.
“I suffered in silence for a lot of years,” Kehler said.
“I wore the mask. And I think a lot of men in rural communities do a good job of that. Just because someone is smiling on the outside doesn’t mean that they’re happy.”
Now based in Saskatoon, Kehler has built a career around promoting mental health.
Earlier this year, he published his fourth book, a poignant and easy-to-read paperback called Mental Health: It’s Time To Talk.
The book contains personal stories from 16 prairie men who suffered in silence before finally opening up and sharing their pain with family members, peers and others facing similar mental health issues.
Kehler’s key message in the book is to speak up, talk to others, seek help and bring men’s mental health issues out of the closet and into the light of day, where they belong.
“I think a lot of people, especially in rural communities, are in pain and they don’t know how to manage the pain,” said Kehler.
“In Saskatchewan, we all face similar challenges. We have a lot of compassion. We all want to support each other and I think we have really big hearts. But I also think, especially in small towns, that a lot of us really don’t know how to talk about what’s going on inside. We fear the judgment. We fear that we’re going to be perceived as weak.
“What I found to be most beneficial to my wellness or healing was being vulnerable — taking a risk and getting myself into spaces with other people who understood me and who were facing similar challenges.”
In the Canadian Prairies, Kehler has found fertile ground in which to spread his message.
Provincial suicide rates in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are consistently among the highest in Canada, while stress and depression are prevalent concerns among Western Canadian farmers who face a multitude of production- and market-related issues.
Financial pressures are also mounting.
In 2018, net farm incomes across Canada dropped by nearly 56 percent on a year-over-year basis, according to Statistics Canada.
On the provincial basis, net farm incomes in 2018 — including the cost of depreciation — fell by 35 percent in Saskatchewan, 46 percent in Manitoba and 82 percent in Alberta, StatsCan data indicates.
And total farm debt continues to climb. In late 2018, total farm indebtedness was reported at $106 billion, up from $98 billion a year earlier. That was before Canadian oilseed producers lost access to their top export market.
Kehler’s book doesn’t focus exclusively on farmers’ mental health, but it does include stories from farmers and ex-farmers who have dealt with depression, financial stress and feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.
The book’s third chapter, entitled Addressing Mental Health in Rural Areas, is sure to resonate with farmers who face enormous pressure but often feel compelled to keep their anxieties bottled up and hidden from their peers.
“Both my father and my grandfather were raised on a farm,” wrote Chris Beaudry, a contributor to the book.
“They were both convinced that how hard you worked and the amount of money you made determined how much of a man you were. (But) agriculture is different than any other occupations because Mother Nature controls how much money you make….
“I was 24 years old when I lost $750,000 on the farm. For an entire year and a half, not a single day went by that I didn’t think about ending my life. I continuously questioned what type of man I was and believed that I must be useless because I had lost so much money.”
Another chapter entitled Suicide offers a stark and moving look at a farm father who lost his son to suicide and struggled afterward to cope with overwhelming feelings of grief, helplessness and guilt.
“For the six months that followed Justin’s death … (we) were both in shock. We had no idea what we were actually going through. Eventually, the shock started wearing off, and we both broke down. We realized this was for real, and Justin was not coming back. It was almost like we lost him all over again, and we hadn’t gained a single step in our healing. I then understood that this was going to be a long healing process.”
According to Kehler, the process of sharing grief and talking about it with others is a critically important step in healing and addressing mental health issues head on.
He encouraged rural men to talk with their peers, form local self-help groups and get their feelings out on the table, where they can be addressed and discussed.
“I have learned that there’s nothing more powerful than hearing someone’s story,” Kehler said.
Resources on mental health, including help phone lines, can be found at www.domore.ag/resources.
The book can be purchased at prairie bookstores including McNally Robinson, Indigo, or Coles. It can also be purchased online through at www.outfromtheshadows.ca or through Amazon.