Lesley Kelly

Lesley Kelly talks at the Ag PhD field day in Baltic, South Dakota.

Farmers and ranchers help one another. If a neighbor is in need of hay, many producers will lend a hand. If a neighbor’s combine is on fire, dozens will drive out to the field to help. But when it comes to mental health, it is a struggle to do more.

There are barriers to dealing with mental health in agriculture, and it’s something Lesley Kelly experienced first-hand for years. Kelly, the founder of the Do More Agriculture Foundation, spoke at Hefty’s Ag PhD Field Day in Baltic, South Dakota July 25.

She lives with her husband in Saskatchewan and both of them have struggled for years with mental health, she said. Her husband, who once sought help from a mental health hotline, started a conversation with Kelly that opened her eyes to the struggle many farmers go through but refuse to talk about.

“That is why this conversation is so very important,” she said. “Mental illness isn’t something many of us can live with.”

After she and her husband shared their story on social media, she said the outpouring of support shocked and delighted her. It led her to founding Do More with her colleagues in Canada. She’s since met dozens of farmers with the same issue and she created a list of tips to get the conversation going in farm families.

The keys she outlined are to be attentive while striking a balance between listening, being curious and asking the right questions. Kelly said she’s seen far too often people put off from sharing their story simply because they felt like no one cared in the room.

A key aspect of breaking down barriers, Kelly said, actually comes from putting them up. She said that many farmers when they talk about this pretend they know all the solutions when they should be recommending their colleagues to mental health professionals.

“It’s up to them if they want help. We can just help them through a journey and support them and be there,” she said.

Mental health issues appear to be widespread. Several reports Kelly compiled suggested that farming carries a far greater risk for mental illness, but she said a lot of data just isn’t there yet for how large of an issue it truly is. The few reports done in Canada have found that more than 90% of farmers reported being overstressed and 40% said they’d seek mental health support.

“Our industry faces a huge stigma when it comes to mental health,” she said. “The positive is that 40% of farmers did say they’d seek help, but I’m here to change that to 100%.”

On top of the stigma, Kelly said that many are worried about their investments as well. When she and her husband were preparing to share their story, they had serious conversations about whether or not their creditors would still support them, or if their partnerships would fall through. But they never experienced discrimination for sharing their story, only support, she said.

“Our goal was just to normalize the conversation and show an everyday couple with peaks and valleys,” she said. “Talking about mental health is the first step to overcoming these challenges. We can break the silence and stigma.”

Kelly encouraged producers to reach out to hotlines available to them should they have a problem. The Do More Agricultural Foundation can be found at domore.ag or you could text HOME to 741741 to receive additional help. Avera also offers a rural stress hotline at 1-800-691-4336.

“No one knows what we are going through more than farmers. So please talk more, ask more and listen more,” she said.

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.