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Wheat fields in May overlooking the Snake River towards Lower Granite Dam.
Photo by Kim McCabe

WestBred

FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Creating a conversation around mental well-being

March 2020
By Trista Crossley


The first regular Agricultural Marketing and Management Organization (AMMO) workshop of 2020 didn’t cover the usual weather/marketing/financial topics. Instead, it aimed to break down barriers surrounding mental health in agriculture.

“No one knows what a farmer is going through better than another farmer,” explained workshop presenter Lesley Kelly. “Your words matter. Your conversations matter. What you have to say can have an immense impact on somebody around you.”

In the past several years, a nationwide conversation has begun taking shape, in both social media and traditional media, around the need to talk about mental health without embarrassment or judgement, especially in agriculture. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, workers in the farming, fishing and forestry industries have some of the highest suicide rates of any professional group, and suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average. When the going gets tough—whether it’s flooding, wheat prices so low they don’t pay the bills or the need to prove one’s self to others—even the toughest can find themselves overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. That’s some of what set Kelly, part of a farming family in Saskatchewan, on the path to becoming a mental health advocate.

At the workshop, Kelly detailed her experiences with mental health issues in both herself (postpartum depression after the birth of her second son) and mental health illnesses in immediate family members. In response to a tweet about farm stress, she and her husband, Matt, who has dealt with overwhelming farm stress, shared an online video in which they detailed their struggles with mental health well-being.

“Our goal was to normalize the conversation that we were an everyday couple with peaks and valleys, and that it does get better. Lot of friends and family didn’t know (about their mental health struggles),” she said. The couple worried that revealing that information would risk relationships with lenders and insurers and jeopardize their agreements with landlords. “That’s what prevents people from raising their hand and saying ‘I need help.’”

Instead, the response to that video, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, revealed that mental health struggles are far more common than most realize. Kelly, who is also a blogger and podcast host, co-founded Do More Ag, a nonprofit organization that focuses on mental health in agriculture, primarily in Canada, by raising awareness, creating a community where people can connect and find resources and supporting research into mental health.

At the workshop, Kelly talked about five ways to break the barriers surrounding mental health illness.

“When we see a burning barn or a burning combine, we run to our neighbors,” she said. “We drop everything and we run. My hope is when it comes to mental health challenges and illness, that it’s the same. That we run to our neighbors. We run and help them.”

1. Mental health is different for all of us, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Kelly recalled a conversation with a former soldier suffering from PTSD who told her that mental health is not a competition. “You can drown in an ocean, a pool or a bathtub. It isn’t the amount of water you are drowning in, it’s the fact that you are drowning.”

The first step is to recognize the warning signs of somebody suffering mentally. Those warning signs could include withdrawing from activities; avoiding social situations; changes in eating or sleeping; overwhelming anger, worthlessness and sadness; showing no interest; and extreme worry or anxiety.

“Everyone has a baseline,” Kelly said. “When you see them go away from that baseline, that’s when you take note and start to talk to them.”

2. Say what you see. Kelly admitted this can be awkward, but it shouldn’t prevent you from asking how someone is doing “when you can see they can’t breathe.”

3. Show you care. You can do this by showing kindness, empathy and compassion. Watch the tone of your voice; use body language and actions; look them in the eye; lean in; and don’t rush the conversation.

4. Listen. “In stressful conversations, listening can be very, very hard and challenging,” Kelly said. She listed some tips, including:

• Strike a balance between listening, asking questions and sharing experiences;
• Be curious;
• Rephrase, summarize and ask for clarity;
• You don’t need to have the answers or even give advice;
• Help that person feel hope and that they are not alone; and
• Awkward silence is okay.

5. Know your role. Kelly explained that while others can help someone in their journey, they aren’t there to fix them. It’s up to the person struggling with mental health to get the help they need.

“Know your boundaries, and when your boundaries start to get crossed, it’s okay to pull back,” she said. “Boundaries are okay when it comes to determining how much support and what that support looks like.”

She pointed out that it’s important to practice self-care, including making yourself a priority; nourishing your social life; making time for therapeutic activities; and looking after your physical health.

Kelly closed her presentation with what she wanted farmers to take away—three calls to action: talk, ask and listen.

“You can make a huge difference on someone, on yourself, too, if you talk more about mental health with your friends and family and community,” she said. “Ask people how they are doing. Ask them what their world is like. Ask yourself how you are feeling. And listen. Listen more to people as they share with you what’s going on. Listen to those around you and listen to your cues, too.”

Following lunch, Kelly moderated a Q&A with a panel that included Marci Green, a farmer in Spokane County; John Roll, professor and vice dean for research and associate vice president for health sciences research at Washington State University; and Scott Winkler, relationship manager at Northwest Farm Credit Services.

Kelly’s blog is at highheelsandcanolafields.com.