Bringing farm mental health issues out into the open, one tweet at a time

Mental health and agriculture has exploded in the last year, and a lineup 
of this year’s Ag Days speakers have been leading the charge

Lesley Kelly can tell you all about how mental health affects the farm.

She can tell you about watching the self-destructive spiral as anxiety and negative thoughts build on to each other. She has intimate knowledge on the weight of life crashing down around harvest. She knows how it feels to suddenly burst into tears.

Kelly and her husband, Mathieu, are two of a growing number of farmers going public with their stories. The pair laid out their struggles in a live-stream video posted last July.

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Both Kellys have had brushes with mental health.

Lesley began feeling overwhelmed three days after the birth of her second child and those feelings only got worse when her husband had to leave their home in Regina for their farm near Watrous, Sask. The couple eventually got help through family.

Mathieu’s troubles started the next year. Anxiety was already an old friend, but the condition flared as harvest pressure and continuing separation from his family took their toll.

Things peaked one night when, alone in his trailer, Mathieu fell into a panic attack and called Saskatchewan’s Farm Stress Line for help.

“Through that call, I knew we needed to do something,” Lesley Kelly said. “As someone’s significant other, it’s so hard to see someone who you love go through that.”

Widespread issue

While Canadian data is scarce, a 2015-16 study by the University of Guelph suggests mental health is a major challenge in rural Canada. Out of 1,100 responses to the online stress and resilience survey, 58 per cent noted anxiety, 45 per cent reported high stress and 35 per cent were fighting depression.

Those rates also contributed to cynicism, something that Marsha Harris, marriage and family therapist with Brandon University, says adds to already negative thoughts. The survey found 43 per cent of respondents were cynical and 38 per cent were emotionally exhausted.

Perhaps more alarmingly, 40 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t seek help.

“Mental illness directly and indirectly affects all Canadians,” Harris told her Ag Days audience as one of several speakers to tackle mental health this year.

“How do we still have stigma if it’s all of us?”

There is little data on farm suicides in Canada — many farm suicides are reported as accidents — but farmers in the U.S. had the highest suicide rate of any other profession, according to the U.S. Centre for Disease Control in 2016.

“That’s terrifying to me,” Harris said.

Many of the factors cited by the CDC are also applicable here, including isolation, the risk of loss, more difficult access to help in rural areas and a skewed work-life balance.

Calling for help

Harris noted many of those same factors when listing things that might affect Manitobans, but added the stress of cold weather, fears around a potentially hostile turn to NAFTA, and incoming regulatory changes to products they’ve come to depend on.

Janet Smith, manager of the Manitoba Farm, Rural and Northern Support Services, says their operators have been increasingly busy. Traffic is also picking up on the program’s recently introduced online counselling.

“That’s a live chat and we are seeing more and more people accessing the services that way,” Smith said.

The hotline has seen some turbulent agricultural times since it first opened the phones 18 years ago, including the BSE crisis and major flooding.

“The nature of agriculture is that we’re one year or one season from a potential crisis,” Smith said.

Calls often pick up after high stress times like harvest and seeding, she said, a time when stress is actually coming down, but also the first time farmers may have time to reach out.

Obstacles

For many who make the call, it is their first experience with any form of counselling.

“You really start with where the individual’s at and what they need,” Smith said. “They may just need some support getting through that moment, but they may need longer-term (support).”

Farmers may be reluctant to make that jump, Harris said. Outside of the stigma around getting professional health, farmers may be reluctant to leave the farm and an appointment may include hours of round-trip travel time.

Approaching that time as an investment, rather than a waste, may help mitigate some of that reluctance, Harris said. Farmers should consider mental health help a farm expense, she stressed.

“It’s part of your livelihood,” she said.

Even if the service is available, farmers may be reluctant to take it, according to Smith, afraid that they will be recognized in what is often a small community and that people’s perception of them might change.

“We do hear from a lot of folks using our line for that reason,” she said.

Smith hopes putting more services online may help overcome some of the barriers. Reluctant callers may be more likely to reach out in the comfort and confidentiality of their own home, she said.

Alongside online chat, the program has launched Calming the Storm, an app offering resources and remote help.

Turning to technology

Both Kelly and Melfort-area producer Kim Keller are using the internet to remove that taboo.

Kelly is no stranger to the power of the web. Best known for her blog, High Heels and Canola Fields, Kelly had already tapped the internet to promote agriculture when she and her husband sat down to film.

“The response from the video, I would never have imagined,” she said. “Aside from having over 100,000 hits, we received an overwhelming positive response both in and outside agriculture.”

Some commenters were looking for resources, while others wanted to share their own stories. Others just wanted to talk.

It was the couple’s hope that they would add one more voice to the conversation. Instead, she said, there was a snowball effect, with their personal story sparking others to share.

Kim Keller has shared that goal, to normalize the conversation around mental health and agriculture, for years.

In 2015, she helped launch a T-shirt campaign in support of Saskatchewan’s Farm Stress Line, the Saskatchewan counterpart to Smith’s program.

It wasn’t until 2017, and a viral tweet that has since led Keller to speak at various industry events.

In June, Keller received a Twitter message from someone in the agriculture industry who had just lost a client to suicide. He wanted to help support the family and was looking for resources.

To her chagrin, Keller found she had no other advice to offer but the Farm Stress Line phone number.

“To me, at this time, it wasn’t good enough,” she said. “The next day, I sent out a tweet and a call to action for agriculture to do more.”

“Do more,” soon became a rallying cry, and Keller’s message spread quickly among agricultural Twitter users.

Within days, the tweet had garnered the attention of politicians, agricultural companies and other producers.

Media soon picked up on the story. Over the next week, Keller appeared on CBC, Global News and a list of newspapers, pitching the need for more mental health support in agriculture.

Since then, she said, the issue has got more attention from companies and producer groups. This year’s Ag Days, one of the biggest events on Manitoba’s agricultural calendar, dedicated an afternoon of talks to the subject, something that speakers noted would not have been a reality only a few years ago.

Do More

The strength of the response has now inspired the Do More Agricultural Foundation.

“We envision a culture in agriculture where all producers are encouraged, empowered and supported to take care of their mental well-being,” the website declares.

Farmers can build a support network on social media if they have to, Keller said, but some form of support network is needed. Farmers should pay attention to potential stressors, like crop failure or crop left in the field. Neighbours should ask after each other if those situations appear.

Lastly, but certainly not least, Keller told farmers to seek professional help if they need it and encouraged the farm industry in general to ask questions and listen earnestly to the answers.

“You don’t need to be the expert,” she said. “Sometimes just being supportive is all someone needs to take that next step to getting help.”

The Do More Agricultural Foundation officially launched its website in late January 2018.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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