Bright patches of yellow and pink flowers line the driveway in Doug Fuller’s backyard in Cambridge, Iowa.
But, just a year ago, the same garden was bare. Fuller was in the midst of a year-long battle with severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
“Despair is probably the biggest thing you think about,” he said of his depression. “When it goes on month after month after month, you just think, ‘Is it ever going to get better?'”
This experience – of farmers struggling with suicide – is extremely common. Farmers and ranchers are nearly twice as likely to die by suicide in the United States, compared to other professions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture grants awarded totaling $2.5 million to states across the nation to expand mental health resources to farmers. Some Midwestern states have taken advantage of the money to distribute resources not only to farmers, but also to lenders, suppliers and community members with whom they interact daily.
The constraints of agriculture
Farmers face many factors beyond their control, from weather to commodity prices to the ever-changing state of global markets. Michael Rosmann, a psychologist from southwestern Iowa who specializes in helping farmers, said the uncertainty of it all can lead to a lot of stress.
At the same time, Rosmann said the things that make a good farmer – independence and a willingness to take risks – can work against him when he needs help.
“They are reluctant to reveal what they perceive as weaknesses, when indeed admitting we need help is a strength, not a weakness,” he said.
This reluctance to seek help makes intervention difficult. More than doctors or advisors, farmers are likely to trust people who understand the unique stressors of farming.
“They often show signs of distress to people they work with regularly,” Rosmann said. “They will tell people who are perceived to be on their side what they are going through.”
A different approach
At the Monona County Agricultural Bureau annual meeting in the small western Iowa town of Ute, Donna Mills took the microphone. From the podium, she led her enthralled crowd of farmworkers to a brochure, filled with suicide warning signs and hotline numbers, sitting in front of them.
These presentations take place all over Iowa; in banks, in veterinary surgeries, in cooperatives and in pesticide safety training sessions. The Iowa Department of Agriculture is using its USDA grant to equip the people who interact the most with farmers on how to identify stress and direct them to resources.
Mills, one of the program’s outreach coordinators, said the resources were sometimes greeted with awkward laughter and jokes. But, other times, she said she could see its impact.
“There were a few sessions that I had where someone would come after me and say ‘There was a guy who was sitting in that formation, he’s tried to kill himself a few times before. So thank you,” Mills said.
Resources are integrated into spaces where farmers already go for information. Iowa State University Extension behavioral scientist Dr. David Brown said it was a strategic effort to combat the heavy cloud of stigma in rural communities.
“If we have a meeting that says we’re going to talk about agricultural stress, do you know how many farmers will show up for that? Absolutely none,” Brown said. “So we need to use other means to get information into the hands of farmers.”
signs of promise
Similar peer support programs are adopted in Nebraska. In 2019, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture began offering two hour workshops community members to understand stress on the farm.
Workshop facilitator Glennis McClure said the goal is to teach participants what to say to a farmer in need. So far it is a success. More than 80% of participants left the session with more confidence in their ability to talk to someone under stress, according to a survey by the University of Nebraska Extension.
She said that each participant should practice asking this really important, but really difficult question: “Are you thinking about suicide?” »
“We really shouldn’t be afraid to reach out and try to find out where people are in this pattern,” she said.
Grant Woodley, a rural pastor and farmer from Clarion, Iowa, took advantage of one of agriculture-focused suicide prevention trainings. He said it gave him the language to tackle difficult conversations with his neighbors and friends.
“This training really gives laypeople the tools to really walk alongside someone, to break some of that isolation that happens with mental health,” he said.
Give a hand
Back in Cambridge, Fuller fully recovered from his intense depression and isolation.
He doesn’t know what triggered his episode – maybe it was how a windstorm flattened some of his crops or maybe it was the COVID isolation. But, he says, he knows he only got better after asking for help.
“I don’t see any reason to keep it all to myself,” he said. “Because it was as real as we are sitting here today.”
Although Fuller didn’t always believe he would make it to the next harvest, he said it helps that his family and friends never stopped insisting he did.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call 988 for help.
For resources specific to agricultural stress in your state, look here:
Kendall Crawford is the western Iowa reporter for Iowa Public Radio based in Sioux City. Follow Kendall on Twitter: @kcrawfish33
This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM
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