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Sports This Week: Sheldon Kennedy talks mental health at CWA

Sheldon Kennedy was the speaker recently at the Grain Expo Conference at Canadian Western Agribition.
Sheldon Kennedy and his son in a canola crop.

YORKTON - There are few things more ‘Saskatchewan’ than playing hockey, or being connected to the farm. 

And, the two things actually have a common thread, both being highly stressful at times. 

So it was less surprising that some might think when former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy was the speaker recently at the Grain Expo Conference at Canadian Western Agribition.

Kennedy, an advocate for abuse survivors was invited by Agribition CEO and long-time friend from Swift Current Shaun Kindopp to speak on the challenges and impacts of mental health and addictions issues.  

“I’m involved in agriculture but it’s part of my life I never really brought into public,” said Kennedy.

Kennedy grew up on a dairy farm at Elkhorn, Man., and was involved in horses near Spruce Meadows in Alberta for a number of years, before moving to southwest Saskatchewan and buying a farm there.

“We farm in the Lucky Lake area,” he said, adding his mom actually came from the area, and a grandfather is buried there.

But facing a room full of farmers made Kennedy nervous.

“I was quite concerned about it. I was probably the most inexperienced farmer in the world,” he related.

But, his topic ultimately resonated with the farmers gathered, the issue of mental health.

Kennedy said the farm sector is far from immune from mental health issues. In fact, the stats are scary suggesting “one-in-four farmers contemplated suicide in the last year.”

But, Kennedy said if you consider the pressures they face, it is understandable they face a lot of stress.

With the investment that goes into planting a crop, worries about whether it will rain and if it does whether it might be too much, and of course the season end prices for what is harvested, are all stressful.

While farmers can’t avoid the stresses of the career they have chosen the key is to understand “ways to manage it,” said Kennedy. “It’s managing the stresses.”

He said producers do everything they can to ensure “the 7000 acres of crop are healthy,” but also need to remember, “the most important part of it all is our mental health.”

Of course there are some things farmers have to deal with that is different from most.

To start with there is the isolation. They operate on their farm away from co-workers who might sense something being wrong.

It can be easy to start to over think problems when driving the tractor around and around a field cultivating.

“The longer we struggle in our heads the more steam it (the problem) picks up,” said Kennedy.

And, on the farm you live the business.

“You drive down that lane you see the work that needs to be done,” said Kennedy.

While there is always work needing to be done, Kennedy said farmers need to find balance, with ways of letting go of the stress of all the things needing to done.

Farming is also very much seen as a job of the individual, so when something is going wrong “you just don’t talk about it,” said Kennedy, adding everybody, farmers included must learn “how we talk about it (mental health).”

It’s something Kennedy said he saw too often in hockey too.

“It’s fairly common in the hockey world,” he said, adding players hesitate to seek help when facing mental health stressors.

Whether with hockey, or farming “there’s a reluctance to reach out and ask for help,” continued Kennedy.

Kennedy said in the case of farmers they can spend a lot of time and effort deciding on what crops to grow next spring, which field to grow then on, what inputs to invest in, because that is important to the farm’s success.

The key is to invest even a small fraction of that time in working on mental health issues, adding if they did that “they’d be way better off,” he said.

Kennedy said if a person is struggling with a mental health issue it has an impact on everything else they do as they struggle to cope, and that can impact farm operations in a detrimental way.

It can be finding that avenue to get away from the stress; exercise or meditation, or whatever works, or it might be reaching out for professional sport.

Whatever is the answer “build it into your calendar,” said Kennedy. “. . . It has to be a priority.”

“Not doing it will eventually affect everything else. Everything else will suffer.”

Kennedy said it is OK to reach out for help.

If something’s bugging you holding it in gives the problem power, but once you talk to someone about it “it losses all its power.”

While Kennedy put together a solid NHL career his path was not an easy one. In fact, it was the hurdles he faced which had him become an advocate on the issue of abuse, after revealing publicly he had been a victim of abuse from Graham James with the Swift Current Broncos as a junior player, and after going through a public battle with alcohol.

Today Kennedy is watching his sons grow up, one is only a couple of months old, the other four years old with the eldest “learning to skate,” said his father.

So given what he went through is Kennedy hoping his sons opt for some interest other than hockey?

“I want to introduce him (the eldest for now) to as many things as possible, as many sports as possible, to art and to music,” he said. “I will tell them to figure out what they like.”

And, Kennedy recognizes that it is hockey which gives him a platform to help.

“We’ve been doing this almost 30 years,” he said, adding slowly more people are talking and progress is being made in terms of mental health.

Two example of other voices covered here are the books Finding Murph: How Joe Murphy Went From Winning a Championship to Living Homeless in the Bush by Rick Westhead and The Save of My Life: My Journey Out of the Dark by Corey Hirsch and Sean Patrick Conboy.

“It’s nice to see others talking about mental health,” he said. “It is all about progress, We’ve come a long way.”

Kennedy added he knows “it’s taken a long time to change” how people view mental health issues, but he has seen it get better. “. . . Really we know more today than we did.”