Farmer shares struggles with mental health

Lesley and Matt Kelly have faced criticism for going public about their struggles with mental health. | Lesley Kelly photo

Lesley Kelly learned from her dad what it really means to be a successful farmer.

“He told me that if you want to be successful, it isn’t about how much land you have or the type of equipment you drive,” she said. “It’s about how we work together, and how we take care of each other and ourselves.”

She spoke about stress and mental health as the guest speaker at the recent annual general meeting of the North Peace Applied Research Association, which serves producers in northern Alberta.

“Our farmers are our greatest assets, and we know that some of our farmers are going through a hard time right now,” she said, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic and the approach of a new cropping season.

Kelly, her husband, Matt, and two children are part of a 7,000-acre grain farm south of Saskatoon that includes her parents and brother. “I always like to joke that you know you’re a farmer when you get your kid’s name from a seed guide,” she told the online meeting, referring to one of her sons.

She suffered from postpartum depression after he was born, she said, adding her husband lives with anxiety and panic attacks that are mainly caused by farm-related stress.

Her brother is living with PTSD and anxiety after coming across a head-on collision a few years ago, and her dad was treated for cancer, causing him to have anxiety and depression, she said.

Although she is not a mental health professional, Kelly wanted to share her family’s journey in the hope “that it can help someone else — in hopes that it will normalize the conversation and know that other people, that it’s OK to not be OK, that you aren’t alone.”

She also knows her children are potentially farmers in the making.

“It’s not if they will go through hard times, it’s when they will go through hard times, and through myself and my husband’s journeys, we hope that they have a community around them that talks about mental health and they have the support and resources that Matt and I — it took a hard time to find those support resources.”

As a blogger, podcaster and motivational speaker who is noted for her website, High Heels and Canola Fields, Kelly co-founded the Do More Agriculture Foundation, which promotes mental health in farming. She also took part in the national #BellLetsTalk campaign.

Stress is a normal response to situational pressures, and it can help motivate people to get things done, she said. But it can be harmful when it becomes overwhelming or prolonged without giving people the chance to recover, she added.

Symptoms can range from tension headaches, fatigue and grinding teeth to changes in diet and sleeping habits, along with procrastination, lack of concentration, and substance abuse, she said.

Other signs include irritability and difficulty controlling emotions, “those angry blow ups in frustration. I know in stressful times, you’ll see the odd wrench being thrown in the shop if something breaks down,” she said.

“And then unfortunately, if stress can be overwhelming or too much, we can see others or ourselves go into a depressed state and then unfortunately also have suicidal thoughts.”

Due to the fact stress is less stigmatized in agriculture, it may be cited by farmers instead of mental illness, she said.

“It’s something to take note, when someone might be saying that they’re stressed or the stresses that they’re facing, they could be describing anxiety, or depression, or something else.”

In any given year, one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness, said a statement by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

“Mental illness indirectly affects all Canadians at some time through a family member, friend or colleague.”

A study last summer by Farm Management Canada found that 62 percent of farmers reported mid stress scores, with 14 percent with high stress scores.

“Most farmers reported undesirable coping mechanisms that may contribute to poor mental health including working more hours and losing sleep, attending social or family gatherings less, and feeling less in control of their emotions,” said a statement by the group.

Kelly said the study “found that women are more likely to report high stress, and this was due to finances, the workload, unpredictability factors, family conflict and farm transition. It was also reported that it could also be attributed to child care and the pressures that women are facing in terms of some stigma with having to prove ourselves and a few other factors.”

The study also found young farmers showed signs of higher stress, “and are generally less effective of coping with that stress, and what they meant was further coping tools and strategies,” she said.

Suicide causes 24 percent of deaths among Canadians ages 15 to 24, and 16 percent among those ages 25 to 44, said the CMHA.

“The mortality rate due to suicide among men is four times the rate among women.”

Despite such statistics, Kelly said there is still a lot of stigma among farmers about stress and mental health, pointing to how she and her husband have been criticized by some people for going public about their family’s struggles.

The couple were told, “if you can’t handle the stress of farming, get out” and “if you can’t handle the stress of farming, you can’t call yourself a farmer, and you’re a pretend farmer,” she said.

Kelly said her family initially didn’t know much about stress and mental health. Much like other farmers, they didn’t talk about it.

“We didn’t know how to talk about it, so what we did was we didn’t share … and there was a time where I would say that myself and others, we didn’t know how to support each other.

“And through those hardships, we learned that by learning more about each other’s mental health, that’s brought our family closer and stronger together because of those actions and supports.”

It is important to learn about what stress is, and to understand the baseline of your own personal signs and symptoms as well as those of the people around you, she said.

Everyone is on a different mental health path depending on their experiences, background and where they are in their lives, she said.

“Even though your stress is different, it’s still real and it’s still valid, and it’s still important, it doesn’t diminish it.”

Due to the fact farmers work where they live, conflict and stress on the job tends to spill over into their personal relationships, she said, pointing to her own family.

“And what was going to determine our success was how we work through those stressful moments together, and we learned that if we didn’t get this right — and we don’t get it right every time — we would have more arguments and more conflict, which would then also result in poor health.”

Kelly said her family realized they had to change the way they do things, “so we started at the basics. We started with the foundation of the farm and where we were going, so we sat down over lots of conversations, lots of hard and sometimes uncomfortable and courageous conversations.

“But we chatted about where we were going as a farm, our mission, our vision, our values and how we communicate with each other. And our values are very simple on the farm.

“The first one is the family comes first in all our decisions to ensure that the family unit is strong, and then the second is the farm, and the next one is the financials because if the family is together, then we can farm, and then the financials will come.”

Kelly’s full presentation can be found here.

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