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Sheldon Kennedy speaks on mental health and agriculture

Agribition Update - Former NHL player Kennedy brought a message of “progress, not perfection” to the Grain Expo.

REGINA - Mental health in the ag industry was the focus of discussion Wednesday as the Grain Expo Conference welcomed Sheldon Kennedy. 

The former NHLer and advocate for abuse survivors was invited by Agribition to speak to grain farmers on the challenges and impacts of mental health and addictions issues. 

His message was particularly relatable to the farming audience, as Kennedy grew up on a dairy farm and has now returned to farming at Lucky Lake, in addition to his advocacy work.

Perhaps it was for that reason that he admitted being “very nervous” before speaking to the group of grain farmers — even though he’s spoken on issues of mental health and abuse in front of many audiences for 30 years.

“I think it’s a little bit about speaking to your peers. I guess I probably underestimated how important mental health is, how much stress and anxiety and worry a lot of times is in the farming world,” said Kennedy.

“I just chatted it out lots and I think I got to a place where it’s like I just needed to tell my story, need to talk about my world, my struggles, and what I do to feel better.”

Kennedy has been an advocate on the issue since the mid-90s, after he had revealed publicly he had been a victim of abuse from Graham James with Swift Current, and after going through a public battle with alcohol. Now, after years of speaking out, he finds he no longer has to carry the message by himself as mental health and addictions issues have become a more mainstream topic.

“When we started doing this work, we were a very singular voice. It was very difficult back in ‘96, ‘97, ‘98. We were all learning,” said Kennedy. 

“We’ve learned how to tell the story better. We’ve learned of the impacts of early childhood trauma, early childhood brain development, and we’ve learned all that stuff. So there’s a lot much more knowledge now today on being able to identify and understand why we feel the way we feel for the most part… we have moved the bar but there’s lots more to do.”

In Regina, Kennedy spoke off the cuff with no notes as he shared his own struggles and some lessons learned. He made the point to the audience that mental health was an issue that impacted a wide group of people.

“What I realized is, you know what, I could relate to many others who never experienced what I experienced, but they could relate to the way that stress and anxiety and anger and worry made them feel,” Kennedy told the audience. “And I think the biggest thing is that I always thought I was alone. I never knew who to talk to about this. I thought this never happened to anyone else. But I found out that it does and a lot.”

His message was a simple one to those in the Queensbury ballroom audience: to strive for progress, not perfection.

“I hope that they could relate to something I said. I mean if they’re struggling or they know somebody who’s struggling or, you know, if they’re doing well. We don’t have to be struggling to take away good things around mental wellness. Mental wellness is something we need to pay attention to when we’re doing well, but also if we’re not doing well.” 

Kennedy added that addiction, anxiety, anger, and fear were relatable to a lot of people. “But the best part about it is there’s a way out. There’s a way to get your life back. There’s a way to manage it and that’s the key — you don’t have to stay in it.”