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Breaking Down Mental Health Barriers in Agriculture

With only standing room available, more than 400 farmers packed into the Breaking Down Barriers session at the recent FarmTech conference in Alberta, Canada. The goal of the panel was to have a candid discussion about mental health, how it impacts those working in agriculture, and how to break down the barriers and stigma around mental health.

The response from farmers, according to panelist Lesley Kelly, was overwhelming. “We got a standing ovation. I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that would happen,” she says. “One individual at the end came forward and said, ‘Thank you. You just saved my life. I’m going to go home and talk.’ ”

The session and its overwhelming response underlines an important point: There’s a need for more mental health awareness in agriculture. But Kelly already knew that. That’s why she, along with cofounders Kim Keller, Himanshu Singh, and Kirk Muyres, launched the Do More Agriculture foundation in conjunction with the panel at FarmTech.

The mission of the foundation is to champion the mental well-being of all producers. In the first year, the foundation plans to do an educational campaign on mental health, create resources for those impacted, and partner with mental health professionals who can provide training to help the industry and producers. While the foundation is focused on producers in Canada, Kelly hopes their reach is global with the potential for expansion into the U.S.

A survey by the University of Guelph shows the need for the foundation in Canada. According to the survey, 45% of farmers report high stress, 58% were classified with anxiety, and 35% with depression. “We cannot ignore the mental health of our farmers any longer,” says Keller, who also spoke at the Breaking Down Barriers session.

Keller was drawn to the cause in June 2017 after hearing about another farmer suicide in her community. She took to Twitter, posting, “#Ag, we gotta do more…Farm stress is real. Suicide is real. Fellow farmers, retailers, input companies, grain buyers, lenders – this is on all of us. We fail each other when it comes to mental health.”

Kelly also took to social media to share her frustration and her story. Last summer, she posted a video discussing her family’s experience with mental health. “My husband and I wanted to normalize the conversation around mental health,” says Kelly. “We are an everyday couple who has their peaks and valleys. Our goal was to share what we do to help each other, tell how this journey has brought us so much closer, and let people know no one in our industry is alone.”

Kelly and her husband, Matt, now put mental health as a top priority on the farm. “We ensure that not just physical health but mental health comes first and foremost,” she explains. “This should be as important as any business aspect. It does affect your bottom line, because it’s impacting your farm if you’re suffering.”

You can learn more about the Do More Agriculture foundation at Domore.ag. In this article, Ohio State University Extension Educator Jami Dellifield shares what to do if you're worried about a family member or friend who may have a mental health illness or be at risk for suicide or harm. She also lists resources for U.S. producers. For Canadian farmers, the Do More Ag site contains a wealth of available resources.

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