Farmers, ranchers and producers have taken an emotional rollercoaster ride in 2019. Between the trade war and relentless weather, producer outlooks are waning.
The latest Ag Economy Barometer, released by Purdue University and the CME Group, showed a dramatic downturn in producer sentiments, with the August reading falling to 124. The August reading is a 29-point drop from July.
The emotional toll of farming today is weighing on many farmers and ranchers. This is sparking serious conversations about suicide and mental health in an industry that the Centers for Disease Control states has a suicide rate of double that of the general population.
When the unthinkable happens
Katie Lyons grew up on an Illinois farm and saw first-hand how depression can change farm families.
“When I was younger, he was always out playing with us in the yard having fun,” said Lyons, reflecting on what it was like growing up with her father on the farm. “We used to go swimming and do a lot of different activities and I try to hold those memories close because that's all I've got left.”
Today, Lyons clinches onto pictures and memories of her father, after the unthinkable changed their family forever.
“My dad decided to take his life in 2013 after a long bout of depression and anxiety on the farm, so it's definitely had an impact on my life,” she said.
Lyons said depression was something her dad battled for years, but when they would address it, she said her dad didn’t want to discuss what was going on.
“It just gradually got worse and worse and worse, to the point where he just couldn't do it anymore,” said Lyons. “He decided that the only option was to take his life.”
That day took Lyons’ life on a sharp turn and she knew she had to make something good out of so much heartache.
“It wasn't until after that happened that I realized how important it was and that we really should have had a lot of have stronger, different conversations than what we had been having leading up to it,” she said.
Ag is different
Adrienne DeSutter is a farm wife, a mom and specializes in behavioral heath, specifically in agriculture wellness. She said while mental health has many stigmas, agriculture is unique.
“Farmers are some of the best caregivers in the world,” said DeSutter. “They care for crops, they care for land and they care for their animals, but they're not always the best caregivers of themselves.”
DeSutter said farmers are naturally selfless, ambitious individuals who rarely rely on others to fix something wrong on the farm, that makes it hard to reach out when they need help with issues like depression.
“They're excellent at recognizing when an animal needs some intervention, but they're self-reliant,” she said. “They want to do things themselves—they want to be the fixers and find the find the solutions.”
Know the signs
Both Lyons and DeSutter say there are warning signs to watch when it comes to mental health and someone possible considering taking their own life.
“He'd become very detached,” said Lyons talking about her father. “He'd taken himself out of a lot of different organizations that he'd previously been involved with. He didn't get he didn't do a lot of extracurricular activities. It was basically go to work, come home, go to bed type activities.”
DeSutter said those signs or changes in behavior are different person-to-person.
“This is not a secret formula, she said. “This is not something that looks the same for everyone. We're just looking for something that has changed, or multiple things that have changed. Specifically, at the farm, you might find, you know that that livestock is being cared for less or that you might see things looking a little more rundown than normal.”
DeSutter said if any of these signs are starting to creep into the picture, the first step is to ask your primary care physician for help. The doctor can then refer you on to a specialist.
She said there are also other steps an individual can take to help improve the situation and relieve the stress and burden caving in.
“Just expand your life beyond agriculture,” she said. “Find a book club or find a card club or have some friends that aren't related to agriculture, just so that you can have a break, because that's the uniqueness of farming is it's a career, but it's a lifestyle too.”
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month; a topic becoming much more widely talked about in agriculture today.
“We look at mental health, and we look at stressors in agriculture is kind of that elephant in the room really,” said A.J. Hohmann, marketing manager for Bayer seed growth. “Let’s talk about it; let's try to remove that negative stigma that's associated with mental health in agriculture, and let's just start the conversation. Let's try to find inspiration for others who are maybe dealing with stress and mental health of their own.”
He said Acceleron is partnering with mental health experts and dedicated a website to the topic. It provides advice and tools to help navigate through such a tough situation.
“We want folks to talk about it,” said Hohmann. “We want to remove that stigma associated with mental health, and is that going to happen overnight? No, absolutely not. Is that going to happen just during the planting season, throughout the growing season? No, this is something we needed to be talking about year-round.”
Acceleron is inviting farmers to share their stories on Twitter, using #farmstateofmind.
Start the conversation
The growing awareness surrounding mental health was also on the mind of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during Farm Progress Show last week in Illinois.
“Any time there’s economic stress in the ag community or any sector, there’s anxiety,” he said. “There’s emotional distress, and it affects families and it affects communities.”
The open conversations about mental health and suicide within agriculture is a welcomed change for Lyons, who is still coping with the loss of her father.
“It's hard because there's a huge stigma around mental health,” she said. “We think it's a weakness or something is wrong with us, but it's a true medical condition. It's just like cancer, just like anything else out there that we have going on with us. Sometimes we have to get help. And it's, it's hard to admit that sometimes. I want to make sure people know there's resources out there, because I don't want this to happen to another farm family.”
Remember You Matter
As the weight of challenges in agriculture get heavier, DeSutter has one plea: remember you matter.
“If you are sitting at home right now, and you feel like depression is overwhelming you and you feel that sense of worthlessness and that sense of hopelessness, I just need you to know that your worth is not measured by the markets,” she said. “It's not measured by your farm. You are a valuable person and what your mind is telling you right now that you're a burden, that's a lie. That's a condition that's taking over, and that's your brain that needs some help. So, I just urge you to reach out talk to anyone that will listen.”
Those sentiments are something Lyons echoes, as loved ones left behind continue to grieve for years after a loved one is gone.
“My family went through a lot and still goes through a lot today,” she said. “It's not something that just goes away, when you figure out how to live your life, we’re continually grieving even six years later, and so I want people to know that there are ways to get help, and there are resources out there and options so you don’t have to go down this path.”
Lyons said after her dad died, her family was forced to make some really tough decisions on the farm. They even sold portions of the farm, and at a more manageable level, her brother and family are still farming today.
She said knowing when it’s time to walk away is what helps keep her family going, as well as remembering to enjoy the little things in life.