By Jeremy C. Nagel
My memories of the 1980s farm crisis are fuzzy and shallow. I didn’t really understand what was happening, in part because I grew up in town (not even a farm town), and in part because I was a teenager, with a stereotypical teenager’s attention span and interest in current events. I saw bits on the nightly news about farm auctions and suicides in Iowa. The first Farm Aid benefit concert (1985) got a lot of press, and I still think John Cougar peaked with “Rain on the Scarecrow.”
Fortunately, the farm economy’s current slump isn’t drawing comparisons to the historic crisis that dominated headlines during the Reagan administration. And thank heavens for that.
Still, the mood across the countryside these days isn’t sunny. But just like Michigan weather, there’s a lot of variation, so we often use words like “spotty” and “variable” and “well that depends…”
Farming’s dangerous enough as it is without circumstances going so sideways that desperate producers start contemplating the unthinkable. At that extreme end of the spectrum, the suicide rate among America’s farmers is significantly higher than that of the general population.
Stress, anxiety and depression are the three most common mental health issues found among farmers. They’re linked, they’re related, they overlap and blend into each other. And if left unchecked, disregarded or even just downplayed, they escalate in severity. They all fall under the very broad category of mental health, and nobody with a lick of sense will deny that, as health issues go, the ones rooted between our ears are the least understood and most neglected.
Why? Stigma. Concern about the judgement of others—about being thought crazy, abnormal or weak—causes even people with low-grade mental health issues to not seek help in addressing them. That reluctance leads to isolation, and isolation only makes it all worse, perpetuating the problem.
Much of that reluctance is rooted in pride, and most farmers rank as high in that category as they do in hard work and overall virtuousness.
But remember: What does pride come before? A fall.
Staving off the kind of fall that can drive a farmer to desperation begins with opening up and talking about uncomfortable topics, and that’s tough, but no tougher than farming itself. Opening up and starting those tough conversations works best with a trusted confidant—family and friends—the kind of top-shelf people who already know your value, who will listen without judgment, and who are compassionate enough to help carry some of the load.
Even for those who feel completely alone, there are compassionate, understanding ears on the other end of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Other resources include the Farm Aid Hotline (1-800-327-6243); AgriAbility; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention; Crisis Text Line (text “GO” to 741741); and Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255).
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