Farmer fights stigma with openness and understanding
“Mental health is part of our overall health. Like physical health, we need to care for it,” says farmer and entrepreneur Kim Keller. She speaks with conviction. An advocate for mental wellness in agriculture, Kim saw a need through her own journey.
The 34-year-old returned to Saskatchewan in 2011, after a degree and an insurance career. She spent the next four years growing crops on the family’s 13,000 acres while also co-founding and running Saskatchewan Women in Ag and an ag tech company.
Then Kim got a call from a close friend, upset that a neighbouring farmer had died by suicide. This compelled her to speak out on social media and to co-found Do More Ag, a non-profit focused on mental health in agriculture.
While she now advocates for greater understanding about mental well-being, talking about her own life is hard. Kim was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and later, anxiety.
“At first, I didn’t understand it – not being able to sleep, racing thoughts and my increased heart rate. But when I started to talk to others I trusted, they’d be like ‘I don’t think that’s normal’,” she says, adding, “sometimes, I think we just accept it because we’ve been living with those feelings for so long.”
Today, she’s able to more easily identify when anxiety starts creeping in.
“Like I manage my physical health and see a doctor for my Crohn’s, I care for my mental health, because both are integral to my well-being,” Kim says.
At the same time, she knows that talking with medical personnel can be intimidating. She credits her doctor.
“She made it like a regular part of my healthcare. She asked what I wanted help with. I didn’t have to know what I was asking for. She said, ‘Are you experiencing any of these things?’ That took the pressure off me.”
Kim likens caring for mental wellness to caring for any other health matter.
“If you don’t feel well for more than a week, you go to the doctor. You don’t let it go until you end up with pneumonia,” she says.
Today, she practices self-care and checks her own well-being.
“People think self-care is touchy-feely stuff like yoga and meditation. It’s not just that. For me, it’s taking five minutes to stretch or walk around and making sure I’m making the most of the sleep I’m getting,” she says.
“Some days I wake up and I know it’s going to be a tough day and other days are normal and good. It’s really important to realize and recognize our stressors so we can identify when they’re happening. Also, that we have the skills and tools to cope through them,” Kim explains, noting that in busy periods like seeding and harvest she still needs to remind herself to check in.
“I’m not going through this alone, and no one else has to,” Kim says. “No one is the only one feeling stressed or anxious or battling a wellness issue. And there are others in this industry, in your community, in your family who are there to support you.”
On the other hand, she says supporters must recognize when someone may need help.
“We tell everyone to reach out if they need support, but when you’re experiencing a mental health challenge, being able to reach out is not easy. If those around you can learn signs and symptoms, then I think we’ll have more success in reaching people when they need to be reached.”
She promotes noticing when someone deviates from their normal baseline behaviour and checking in with them in a genuinely compassionate way.
“It’s OK to say, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately,’” Kim says, explaining it opens the door for conversation.
She acknowledges people sometimes don’t ask because they don’t know how to respond.
“That’s where we can start looking to education and building capacity in ourselves and our communities. Things like mental health first aid courses, talks, training – things that build real tangible skills in family, friends and the industry,” Kim says. She acknowledges there’s still fear.
“I don’t know how many times in the last year people have shared their experience with me and then say, ‘Please never tell anyone this because I’m going to lose my financing, my landlord, my retailers. My neighbours won’t talk to me anymore.’” Kim is determined to make that fear a thing of the past.
“Anxiety is something, just like my Crohn’s, that I will live with the rest of my life. You live with it. You figure it out and thrive and succeed. It doesn’t stop me from what I want to do.”
Article by Myrna Stark Leader