Mental health is an under-discussed topic, particularly in the world of agriculture. When success is directly influenced by the weather—a constantly changing and shifting force—it’s no wonder growers experience higher stress levels because of the uncertainty. Combine that with pandemic stress and isolation and many farmers struggle to manage their mental well-being.
Lesley Kelly is no stranger to the struggle. She runs a 6000-acre grain farm in Saskatchewan, growing wheat, lentils, and canola with her husband, brother, and two sons. As a farmer and mental health advocate, her own family’s experiences inspired her to help others who may not know where to turn.
“I never knew a lot about mental health,” said Lesley. “We didn’t even have conversations about it growing up. It wasn’t until my husband Matt started to have panic attacks from farm stress, and I had post-partum depression after my second boy was born. We realized we were having challenges and needed to do things differently—in our family and on the farm.”
After hearing stories of others in the community struggling to reach out for help, Lesley continued her journey of studying mental health and wellness. Today, she has plenty of insights, tools, and resources to share that have helped her family and countless others like them.
Keeping Your Slip Tank Full
Lesley insists that one of the most critical priorities for managing your mental health is self-care. “I call it ‘filling up your slip tank,’” she said. “You can’t service other equipment if the tank is empty. Take care of yourself, take breaks, and do what you need to recover and recharge.”
Self-care can look different for different people—it’s not just about bubble baths and face masks. For Matt, a jog around the farm helps relieve his anxiety. Everyone’s journey is different, and learning about your own mental health can help you find the right things to fill your slip tank.
Lesley also recommends having a mental health action plan for when you or someone in your family needs time to rest.
“We have safety nets in our back pockets,” she said. “Who can we get on the drill if Matt needs a day? If he had a broken leg, we would need to get someone. Having a backup plan makes the rough days okay. It’s okay to ask for help.”
Continuing the Conversation
Having candid conversations about mental health isn’t just about awareness—it’s about having the language to express our needs and learning how to best support others. For Lesley and her family, creating a safe space at home to open up about their mental health helped them to understand each other better. Weekly check-ins have become common practice on the farm.
“Once a week, we discuss our stress and rate it—one being low, 10 being high. If we name the feeling and put it out there, it gives the stress less power and helps us reduce it. It opens the doors of checking in on each other, like a team dynamic,” said Lesley.
For folks learning to support family members through mental health difficulties, she said the best things you can do are listen and offer help.
“When my husband or brother opened up, I always thought I was pretty supportive. I’m a solver and saver, but problem-solving wasn’t the support they wanted,” she said. “95 percent of the time, they just wanted someone to listen while they vent. Asking how you can support someone helps so much—it’s been great on the farm.”
Mental Health Resources for Growers
There are plenty of ways to access mental health support if you need it. For Lesley, signing up for virtual counselling has been an enormous help. Now, she can chat with a licensed professional on the phone while on her tractor.
For Saskatchewan growers, the Saskatchewan Farm Stress Line provides 24/7 on-call support for crisis intervention and appropriate program referrals.
Across Canada, dialing 988 will connect you with a trained professional in the event of a mental health emergency.
The Do More Agriculture Foundation offers region-specific resources and workshops for agriculture professionals, including a four-hour online class called Talk, Ask, Listen. Lesley said she and Matt recently completed their mental health first-aid training, describing the experience as “completely lifechanging.”
If your stress, feelings, or emotions are outside the normal, it’s okay to share and reach out to your support system. That could mean family, friends, clergy, your doctor, a telephone helpline—anyone who can help get the weight off your shoulders.
No one knows what another farmer goes through quite like another farmer. We know how that stress can look and feel, it’s something we all share. Don’t be afraid to check in with your neighbours if you know they’re experiencing difficulties—it could be lifesaving.
“Our farmers matter,” said Lesley. “Only two percent of people farm now, and no farmer should be left behind.”
To learn more about Lesley Kelly and her incredible advocacy work, visit her blog High Heels and Canola Fields.