Breaking the Stigma of Mental Health in Agriculture

Jul 06, 2020

Story by: Nichole Gouldie, MKC communications and brand manager

Have you ever heard the expression, don’t judge a book by its cover? That expression can relate to more than just books; as humans, we too often judge each other by physical appearances. But it is important to remember there is more that lies beneath the surface of a human being, even the hardworking men and women involved day-in and day-out in agriculture. 

It’s no secret that farmers and ranchers have particularly demanding jobs, which can be physically and mentally exhausting. Producers are independent and resilient people. However, even the toughest among us are facing nearly insurmountable challenges.

Lesley Kelly is the farmer behind the popular blog, “High Heels and Canola Fields,” and a passionate advocate for supporting mental health within the agricultural industry. A wife, mother and farmer from Saskatchewan, Canada, Kelly believes the success of any farm operation hinges on the well-being of the farmer.

“Mental health was something that was never a priority for our farm family until things really escalated,” Kelly says. “There soon came the point where we made the promise to make each other and ourselves a priority and put mental health on the forefront.”
Where it all began
Mental health is a topic that is near and dear to Kelly’s heart. Through struggles with her own family, and seeing friends and fellow farmers go through struggles, the topic really became a priority she wanted to share with others.

“For the last few years, I have been trying to reduce the stigma and break the silence that so many of us in agriculture are living,” she says.

Kelly originally started on social media to bring producers and consumers together to share her love of agriculture, but that shifted to share the connections to farming, food and people and the importance of mental health. 

After recognizing that she had postpartum depression after their second child was born and her husband, a farmer, was living with anxiety mainly attributed to farm stress, she and her husband shared a live video together that received a tremendous amount of positive feedback.

“Other people were looking for hope, and some people were looking for that extra bit of encouragement to raise their hand and say they were going through something similar,” Kelly says.

The response from others made Kelly want to provide support and resources to the entire industry. 
Kelly’s own journey started with getting help through counselors, as well as having her entire family onboard for help and support.
Championing mental well-being
Through her blog and social media sites, as well as the Do More Agriculture Foundation, Kelly is focused on combatting the mental health crisis in agriculture.

“We are trying to do three things through our outreach efforts, including bringing awareness about mental health, create a community and provide more research in the agricultural industry,” Kelly says. Kelly added the agricultural industry hasn’t talked about mental health in the past, so there is a lot of unknown. Her efforts are focused on trying to bring awareness to agriculture as to what mental health is and what it takes for farmers to be mentally well.

Established in 2017, the Do More Agriculture Foundation’s mission is to champion, encourage and support the mental well-being of farmers.

While the Do More Agriculture Foundation’s efforts are focused in Canada, Kelly says it is important for farm families to find a resource they can trust and believe in for mental health and use them as a third party to provide different perspectives on how they are feeling.

“I advise people to find the 24/7 hotline number for that organization and put it into their phone in case there is ever the need to talk to a professional immediately, you have already thought about it and aren’t scrambling to find a resource,” she says.

The Kelly family uses a mobile app called “BetterHelp” that they have downloaded to their phones, which has provided their family a convenient way to get professional help from licensed therapists and counselors online.
Kelly also encourages farmers to look to their extension services for information and support. According to Kelly, another great resource is Mental Health First Aid.
Keeping watch on loved ones
Learning the signs of mental illness means it can be detected early and action can be taken sooner rather than later. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it may be useful to follow up with a mental health professional if several of the following issues are occurring:
  • Sleep or appetite changes
  • Mood changes
  • Withdrawal
  • Drop in functioning
  • Problems thinking
  • Increased sensitivity
  • Apathy
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Illogical thinking
  • Nervousness
  • Unusual behavior
Kelly’s most significant piece of advice for anyone is you know your normal and you know your loved ones normal, so when you see concerning behaviors really talk to them, ask questions, listen and talk about mental health.

“Every situation is so different and mental health impacts everyone so differently,” Kelly says. “For example, I had different signs than my husband.”

The farm stress for Kelly’s husband, Matt, was shown when he stopped eating and sleeping. One of the most prominent physical signs for Kelly’s husband was when he started to have panic attacks where he experienced difficulty breathing, excessive sweating, and racing thoughts of worry and anxiety. According to Kelly, Matt struggled to begin making just day-to-day decisions. Kelly, having postpartum depression, became extremely emotional. She couldn’t call friends and became isolated. When the farm couple began seeing each other outside of their normal behaviors, they knew something was going on and started talking about it more.

“It is so important to ask our loved ones how they really are doing,” Kelly says. “By asking spouses, parents, kids and others in your life how they really are doing and getting them to open up helps bring the topic of mental health to the surface.”

Mental health is not something that just affects the individual person. When someone is suffering from a mental health challenge, distress or an illness, it impacts the whole family. It can impact the farming operation. 

“You really need that support system, your rally of people to help you get through it,” Kelly says. “It can impact day-to-day operations. It can impact marketing decisions. It can impact getting the crop in the ground, calving season and so much more.” Mental health impacts everything in your life, including one’s livelihood and their loved ones.

Though help of any kind is welcome, Kelly says farmers and rural communities need to recognize it’s not weakness that leads to mental health problems.

“It is okay not to be okay,” Kelly says. “It is okay to have emotions and those feelings that you might have are real and valid. We all go through hard times, and there is hope and it does get better. You need to put yourself as a priority as you are your farm’s greatest asset, so treat yourself in that manner.”

Mental health issues have been largely ignored by the rugged and fiercely independent farmers and ranchers in our community. However, life presents ups and downs, and it’s okay to ask for help. It really is.

For more information about mental health, here are just a few resources for farmers and ranchers:

Farmers Thrive: An ongoing support service available for MKC member-owners. It is a cost-free, confidential resources to help farmers through a wide array of life challenges. Learn more at or 1-800-327-2251.

Kansas Ag Stress Resources: The Kansas Department of Agriculture along with several Kansas ag partners created, a source for resources and support for the Kansas agriculture community. For free 24/7 support, call 1-800-447-1985.

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