Lesley Kelly - Healthy minds: Mental wellness in agriculture
It’s no secret that our farmers, ranchers and producers have particularly demanding jobs, which can be physically and mentally exhausting. Lesley Kelly is the farmer behind the popular blog, “High Heels and Canola Fields,” and a passionate advocate for supporting mental health within the agriculture industry. She joins us to discuss the emotional toll of farming, particularly during this time of unprecedented uncertainty, and shares the small steps that anyone can take toward improving their mental well-being.
The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael’s interview with Lesley Kelly. Click below to hear the full audio.
Michelle: Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is Lesley Kelly. Lesley, you're the head and the heart behind the blog called High Heels and Canola Fields. You're a wife, you're a mother and a farmer from Saskatchewan, and we want to talk to you today about one of your many passions: mental health. Lesley, you believe the success of any farm operation hinges on the well-being of the farmer, and you personally make mental health a priority, and you don’t shy away from talking about mental health. Tell us about yourself and your family, and how did you begin down this path?
Lesley: Yeah. Well, thank you, first and foremost, for having me. Mental health is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and what I've been trying to do over the last few years is reduce that stigma and break that silence that so many of us in agriculture are living in. Ten years ago, if you would've said I would become a mental health advocate, it wasn't even on my radar, but through struggles within my family, seeing my friends go through struggles, our fellow farmers, it really became a priority — especially a couple of years ago, after my husband and I did a live video sharing our mental health journey. I shared that I had postpartum depression after our second child was born, and my husband, a farmer, is living with anxiety mainly attributed to farm stress. So, we did this live video sharing what we had done together as a team and individually to really help overcome those challenges, and the reception we got afterwards was nothing that we've had or could have ever anticipated. That, really then, was the catalyst for myself and three other individuals in Saskatchewan for starting a not-for-profit called Do More Agriculture that is championing the mental well-being of our producers.
Michelle: Before you started down this path of making mental health a priority, were you aware that there was so much of a need for this?
Lesley: No. It wasn't until we did the video, because we kept thinking — my husband, Matt, and I kept thinking, "Are we alone in this?" After hearing from a few friends about their struggles, we thought, “There must be more of us out there.” We aired the video, and afterwards — after we pressed "stop" — the text messages, the phone calls, the direct messages, the social media, it blew up. It wasn't anything that we ever thought (would happen), and 99% of it was positive. People were looking for hope, and people were looking for that extra bit of encouragement to raise their hand and say, "You know what? I am going through something" or "I have gone through something and I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to or what to say." That really made us look at mental health as not just us but, really, an industry that needed more help and support and resources.
Michelle: Absolutely. You have quite a following on your blog and on your social media sites, and you seem so passionate about mental health. You mentioned previously, you talked about the organization that you co-founded, Do More Agriculture Foundation. Can you talk about the specific goals of that foundation?
Lesley: We are trying to do three things. The first one is to increase awareness about mental health. Our industry — agriculture — we haven't really talked about mental health in the past, so there is a lot of unknown. We're trying to bring awareness to agriculture as to what mental health is and what it takes for our farmers to be mentally well. The second is to create community. Our landscape in agriculture is changing. More people are moving to the cities. Our small towns are decreasing in size. It really takes a community to help our farmers around us, so we're trying to change that and build community, whether it's online or at events, and create a hub of resources, that community of health, so farmers know where to go if they are having a hard time. The third is research. We're trying to help those in research to understand what farmers need when it comes to support and knowing more about mental health in agriculture.
Michelle: I wonder if mental health is more of an issue in agriculture — or is it around the world, globally, in all professions, and it's just now being talked about in agriculture?
Lesley: Yeah. When it comes to mental health in agriculture, there are so many unknowns. It has been a recent discussion over the past couple of years that has come more to light. I have been part of campaigns where farming and agriculture was included, and it is a societal concern, but that societal concern — moving that needle, having a positive discussion — has then transcended into agriculture to help start those conversations. I do believe it is a worldwide concern, and I hope that, in agriculture, we can continue the positive momentum that we've had the last couple of years of starting a conversation and keeping it going.
Michelle: It's no secret that farmers and ranchers have very demanding jobs. You know that firsthand. At times like these, amidst COVID-19 — it's unprecedented, but at times like these, there's economic uncertainty. There's vulnerability, still, to weather. There's isolation, which is obviously worse on someone who already suffers from something like anxiety or depression. What words of encouragement or advice do you have for fellow producers out there during this crisis?
Lesley: Farming is an amazing lifestyle. It's an amazing industry to be in. Our roots are established in strength and perseverance, but sometimes, that could be a weakness, where you put your head down and work through it, and sometimes, that might not be the best. So, what we're trying to encourage in those around us — there are three main things, and that's to talk, ask and listen. By doing these three small things, you could really make a big impact on yourself and those around you. When we say “talk,” we want people to talk more about mental health. Talk to your family, your friends, your fellow farmers. Check in on them and talk about mental health. We don’t want these conversations to be hushed, because we know that if it just takes one person to raise their hand and say, "Hey, I need help," that could be a catalyst for encouraging others to get help that they need, too.
The second is to ask, and that really means to check in on people around you. Ask how they are doing. Also, check in and ask yourself how you are feeling. The third is to listen. I know that by listening, you don’t have to be an expert when it comes to mental health, but listening to someone — taking all of their struggles and pouring them out, taking the weight of the world off of their shoulders — can be a life-saving difference. It could make a life-saving impact. Also, listen to yourself and ask how you can help yourself through a really, really hard time.
Michelle: Do you think farmers feel additional pressure at this time to keep the food supply chain moving, or is this business as usual for farmers?
Lesley: Well, I'm not too sure about the pressure to keep it going as a farmer. I know, with us, seeding is right around the corner, and our goal is to keep putting that crop in every year. We're facing some worry and anxiety around will we have enough crop input supply, or what will that do to transportation if our plant or tractor break down? Will there be parts available? I can see or I've heard from other parts of the supply chain how they have more pressure. Transportation, frontline staff at grocery stores — that's where, probably, right now, is the most pressure.
Michelle: I love what's happening in the background here, because it shows everyone is trying to maintain a sense of normalcy when nothing in the world feels normal right now. Is that your children at the background?
Lesley: Yes. They are hungry, I believe.
Michelle: Maybe you can explain to us how you're managing, because we talked about how, when you have something like anxiety or depression, you already feel isolated, and the social distancing might make it worse. How can somebody combat those feelings of isolation during this time? What advice do you have for them on how to maintain relationships and positivity when they feel so isolated and, quite frankly, are distanced from their loved ones in some ways?
Lesley: Yeah. Right now, I can see for myself, being so extroverted, that I'm having a hard time being away from my family and friends. I think the one thing, once COVID is past us, on the top of my list is hugging my mom and my dad, who I haven't been able to see.
What I would encourage others who are having a hard time and need that connection with people is to keep continuing to reach out. What anxiety and depression do to us is they make us go into a box. They make us become distant, but continue to put that step forward. Every day, for me, it's making a goal that I'm going to check in on this person. I'm going to send a text, and not just a text saying, "Hey, how are you doing?" but even further, sharing what that person means to you because you haven't been able to see them in such a long time. Then, on the flipside is if you know in the past of someone who has had mental health challenges, who is going through a mental illness, for you to reach out to them, to have that text, send that text, to do that virtual call, because those can make a world of difference.
What my husband and I are doing right now inside of our home is we're journaling. We're doing art classes. We're trying to do as many family things to bring that connectedness home, and then the one thing that really helps my husband and I is to get outside, get that fresh air, feel that sun, do things, check off things on the to-do list that really make that anxiety lessen as we're coming into the seeding and planting season.
Michelle: Figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that, at least here in America, those who work in agriculture have some of the highest suicide rates of any professional group. Is there a similar concern or a problem where you are?
Lesley: Yeah. We actually, in Canada, we don’t have any stats on farmer suicides, but yeah, we've looked to our friends in the States who have that research, and it is very — that's a hard number to hear, so my goal, by me talking about mental health, being an advocate, co-founding Do More, is to ultimately change those numbers.
Michelle: Farmers, of course, are often in rural areas with very limited access, in some cases, to mental healthcare. How does this compound an already escalating problem?
Lesley: Yeah. There are so many things that, as farmers, we face that are outside of our control, whether (it’s the) economy, like what you've mentioned, but then, it's (also) our access to support. During harvest or calving, as a farmer, it's very, very hard just to pick up and leave and drive four to five hours into the city to get that support — and then, sometimes, that support might not understand farming. They might not understand the world of agriculture and that it's not a nine-to-five job, that there are so many layers and so many things that are happening on the farm. So, at Do More Ag, what we're trying to do is bring that support — to know what support is out there and then bring that support to agriculture, so those that are servicing us understand our world and we can help our farmers.
Michelle: What are some of those resources that are out there for farmers? Where can they find help dealing with this additional stress and anxiety that everyone is feeling right now?
Lesley: Well, for us up in Canada, first and foremost, they can go to our website at domore.ag, where we have a list of resources that are set out provincially, but those who are in the States, they can look to their extensions. There are so many resources right now that are online, especially during COVID, that you can access on your computer or you can text support or you can call someone, whether that could be a mental health service hotline or your local hospital.
Michelle: Are there any certain signs, certain telltale symptoms, that farmers should be aware of and acknowledge for themselves so that they know they're headed down a dangerous path?
Lesley: Yeah. When it comes to mental health, it might look different for everyone, but my biggest advice when I'm chatting with others about those signs and those symptoms is that we all know our normals and those normals of people around us. If their acting or if their behaviors or feelings or thoughts are outside of that typical normal, that's where that could be a red flag to start to have those discussions about mental health. For my husband, his farm stress — what we saw him go through is he stopped eating. He stopped sleeping. One of the biggest physical signs was he started to have panic attacks where he couldn't breathe, excessive sweating, just racing thoughts of worry and anxiety, so that made us really realize that it's something — it wasn't just a little bit of worry and then work through it.
For me, having postpartum, I became quite emotional. It was hard for me to call a friend. I really became socially distant, isolated. The other part with Matt, what I saw — and this could be (common) with those on the farm — is he had a really hard time making just day-to-day decisions. Just small decisions, they really stopped him in his track. That was when we saw each other outside of our normals and said, "Hey, I think that something is going on that's bigger than what we first anticipated."
Michelle: Yeah. That goes right along with my next question. When farmers ignore mental health, just like chronic pain, poor mental health can make it difficult to manage everyday stressors in farmers' lives. How were you personally impacted, or what is the worry beyond just what you had to do on the farm?
Lesley: Yeah. Mental health is not something that just affects the individual person. I had personal experience that, when someone is suffering from a mental health challenge or distress or an illness, it really impacts the whole family. It can impact the farming operation. You really need that support system, that rally of people, your cheerleaders around you, to help you get through it, because sometimes, for Matt, he didn’t think anything was wrong. It was something that was his normal for so long, so it really took us to champion and help him through that really hard time, but it can impact day-to-day operations. It can impact your sales. It can impact getting the crop in the ground. It can impact during calving season. It's not just an impact of your mental health. Mental health can impact everything in your life if it's not addressed or if you don’t have the proper mental health techniques to get you through those hard times.
Michelle: Right now, especially, there seems to be a renewed sense of appreciation for farmers. People are showing appreciation more than ever before. Store shelves are stocked with milk and eggs and everything, for that matter. I've talked to farmers and producers firsthand who are hearing for the first time ever, "Thank you." Does that help with mental health from an agricultural perspective?
Lesley: I don’t know, as farmers, if we do look for that recognition. I know, for my husband and I, it's the lifestyle and showing our kids a new experience or life lessons that come from the farm, but when it comes to consumers that are in a different world, if they're in the cities and something that's so far removed from agriculture or farming, when they see how we do as farmers — the 2% of us (who) impact so many things, whether it's the economy, getting food on the table — that "thank you" could really mean a world of difference to someone who is going through a really hard time.
Michelle: From the consumer end of things, is there anything that we can do to bolster the feelings of love and appreciation toward our farmers and our food producers around the world, especially when they're working so hard to feed us during this pandemic?
Lesley: Oh, that's a big question. For me, it would be to continue supporting your farmers. Continue buying that food. You know what? What makes me smile at the end of the day is just connecting with people now, through social distancing or physical distancing. It's getting to understand other people's world, and if I have the opportunity to connect with someone who lives in the city and hear those words of support and love and that kindness that the world needs right now, that, to me, really brings a smile to my face.
Michelle: What do you think might change in regards to mental health after this crisis is over? How will it change us?
Lesley: I'm being quite optimistic. I'm looking at it as, now, because of our world going through something that is so unforeseen, mental health is a priority. People will be looking at mental health as one of the top things that they need to make a priority — (and) make themselves a priority. I'm also looking forward to seeing the changes of the mental health support. We all love to go into or would like to have that face-to-face contact with someone, but as farmers, we might not have that luxury, so I'm seeing and hope to see even more support, whether it's texting, calling or those virtual conferences of bringing support to people who might not be able to get that face-to-face connection.
Michelle: Lesley Kelly is our guest today. Her goal is quite simple: to make the agriculture industry stronger and, quite simply, to break down the culture of toughness encouraged among farmers so that they, too, can discuss mental health. Lesley, thank you so much for joining us today.
Lesley: Thank you for having me.
Michelle: For additional resources on COVID-19, visit Alltech.com.
This episode is part of a special AgFuture series on the impact of COVID-19 on the food supply chain. Join us to hear how those on the frontlines of the global pandemic are working to overcome adversity and feed the world.
Hosted by Michelle Michael
As lead video producer at Alltech, Michelle travels the globe for the company’s award-winning Planet of PlentyTM documentary series. Michelle spent a decade as a video producer/reporter in Germany, reporting from military hotspots at the height of the war on terrorism. The National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) has twice recognized Michelle as their solo video journalist of the year.
Co-produced by Brandon Whitworth
As the senior media production specialist at Alltech, Brandon co-produces the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty TM documentary series. Brandon is a two-time Emmy Award winning television news photojournalist and three-time nominee. He has received several regional awards from the National Press Photographers Association for excellence in visual storytelling.