Agriculture across the world is struggling with a hidden mental health crisis that is devastating farm families around the globe: suicide, depression, and anxiety plague the world’s food providers. This issue is certainly not new – in fact scattered across the country side here in Northern Yellowstone County Montana are barns where farmers sadly took their own lives. As I sit and write this post, there is one such abandoned barn where a farmer died by suicide decades ago, only several miles away. The barn is close to ruins, but the story and tragedy remains in the background. I could be optimistic and hope the stories of farmers passed would provide a cautionary tale about the importance of mental health and mental health awareness in the farming community, however I know that is not the case. Data, statistics and anecdotal evidence tell me otherwise.
A Global Problem with a Global Solution
There is hope within the agriculture community however as many hope that 2018 is the year we lift the stigma, open the doors for increased mental health awareness, and hopefully a reduction in the number of farmer suicides. Mental health awareness and the tragedy of farmer suicides rose to the surface several months ago when The Guardian published an article titled: Why are America’s farmers killing themselves in record numbers?. This article revealed shocking statistics from a 2016 CDC study that revealed agricultural workers in 17 states were nearly FIVE (5!) times more likely to commit suicide than the general population. According to the article equally shocking statistics exist in other major agricultural countries including these staggering numbers:
“. . . an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995,” Debbie Weingarten (article linked above).
The release of the article, written by former farmer Debbie Weingarten, opened the floodgates for individuals within the agricultural industry as they came forward with stories of their struggles with mental health issues, thoughts of suicides, suicide attempts in some cases, and offers for help. Debbie even wrote a follow up article for The Guardian in response to the overwhelming flood of responses from across the globe. The night the original article was released across the border in Canada farmer Megz Reynolds wrote a heartbreaking and all too familiar story about her struggles with mental health and isolation. Her blog post along with several others from Canadian farmers sparked the desire in 4 other farmers to form a non-profit foundation aimed at helping farmers cope with stress, mental health issues, and provide a source of empowerment for those struggling. Recently they launched The Do More Agriculture Foundation which hopes to “change the culture in agriculture; we are putting our people, our producers, first.”
Lesley Rae Kelly, Kim Keller, Himanshu Singh, and Kirk Muyres combined to form the foundation and have enlisted the help of many other Canadian producers. One look at their Twitter feeds (linked to their names) shows the profound impact they have had in a short period of time. Back stateside Audra Mulkern, who was the photographer for Debbie Weingarten’s piece in The Guardian, as well as founder of The Female Farmer Project has become personally invested in improving mental health access throughout the industry. She successfully worked with legislators in Washington to introduce HB2671 “Improving the Behavioral Health of People in the Agricultural Industry.” Audra traveled to Olympia several times to lobby on behalf of the bill, organize co-sponsors, and last week she testified in front of the House Healthcare and Wellness committee in support of the bill. Her testimony is linked here (she starts at the 55 minute mark). This bill also has the support of many of the agriculture groups across the state including the Washington State Potato Commission, Washington State Grain Commission, Washington State Grange, Washington State Dairy Federation as well as the Washington Department of Agriculture and the AFL-CIO. The bill was passed out of committee by a vote of 16-0 on January 31, 2018.
Montana’s Own Struggles
In Montana agricultural workers rank lower on the list of occupations of suicide victims according to the 2016 Suicide Mortality Review Report (but this report separates the logging industry from agriculture while the CDC report combines the two). In Montana agriculture was 6th on the list, however that is not to diminish the level of mental health crisis in Montana. It is significant. We are ranked #2 in the country for suicides and our citizens are often located far from mental health facilities. Despite having less suicides in our industry compared to the CDC study we still struggle with depression, anxiety, and lack of access to quality mental health coverage. The latter also underscores the reluctance of many farmers to visit mental health providers even if one is available and they have insurance to cover the visit.
Lack of insurance, lack of desire, and lack of confidence that a mental health provider will improve their situation are often barriers for farmers and ranchers not only in Montana but across the country. During the Farm Crisis in the 1980s most agricultural states started hotline numbers for farmers however, most have since been discontinued. Hotlines often provide a crucial lifeline for individuals struggling with mental health issues because they provide a certain amount of anonymity and allow a farmer to express their feelings without feeling judged by their peers, friends, or family. The 2008 Farm Bill included a program called the Farm and Ranch Stress Network which would have established hotlines, increased access to rural mental health care, and perhaps provided a lifeline to many struggling farmers and ranchers. Sadly the program was never given the discretionary funding it needed and it was never established.
Farmers also struggle with isolation, not only do we live in rural areas, we spend all together too much time working alone. A tractor or combine provides solace for many of us – but it also can be a very dark dark place. There is little to do but think, over think, analyze and over analyze as we go back and forth, round and round across expanses of open country. I think many with depression know that the dark places often get even darker when we are allowed to be alone with our thoughts for too long. Our long days with little exposure to the outside world and even little conversation with anyone but our trusty farm dog can exacerbate our anxiety and depression. Even farmers among us who are not known to struggle from mental health issues will likely admit that the quiet and lonely confines of a tractor or combine have caused them to spend several dark hours on occasion. These instances increase dramatically during droughts, low market prices, and other natural disasters impacting our operations.
Shortly before Debbie wrote her story for the guardian, Megz wrote her blog, and the farmers in Canada created Do More Ag – I was struggling under the weight of new motherhood, the stresses of coming to terms with my new role that took me away from the fields, and general day to day stresses that come with the territory in agriculture. My struggles with depression center around Postpartum Depression, however that does not diminish the impact that has on myself, my family, and my job. I wrote the following the day I took the picture below:
“This is face of someone struggling with postpartum depression …. It has taken me months to realize I was struggling, months of suffering from increasing sadness, desperation, and an inability to enjoy a lot of things I used to. It didn’t happen overnight. It didn’t even happen every day. But it happened. Slowly. Last night as I was sitting on the bathroom floor sobbing for no real “reason”, generally not paying attention to Will as he took a bath, and Tate played quietly with his toys, I realized something was very wrong. I suddenly couldn’t make it through a day at home with my babies. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t function. I needed help. As soon as I admitted it to myself, and later to Travis, and finally today to my doctor – a weight was lifted. I’m not supposed to feel this way. It doesn’t have to be like this. And while all of the pictures that paint a happy life, are true, I am blessed with children that sleep, never suffered from colic, rarely cry, and in general are dream babies – and I still was struggling. Knowing there’s a reason, having the ability to get help, afford a prescription, and have access to a counselor has already lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. It’s not a cure. It will take time. But it feels better knowing there’s a reason. Being this vulnerable is not easy for me – but I hope if any one else feels the same way I do – they know there are resources out there, they’re not alone, and they shouldn’t have to cry on their bathroom floor while their happy children play in the background.”
While my story relates to Postpartum Depression as opposed to general depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts it was eye opening to me the number of people both publicly and privately that reached out to me with similar stories, and sadly many cases where they believed they needed to just “power through” and never did seek help. Those stories are ubiquitous throughout agriculture: producers believe if they just keep working, just keep trying, they will eventually feel okay – and sadly many times that is not the case.
Our industry is one in which we are dependent on markets and weather, two factors far outside our control, and they leave us at their mercy. We are known for second guessing, crippling inability to make decisions for fear of failure (What if the market goes up tomorrow?!? What if it does not start raining?!?), and an alarming inability to articulate the crushing stresses we often feel. It is entirely uncomfortable and unfathomable to imagine walking into your neighbors (and best friend’s) shop in tears because you cannot handle the stress of our current situation, it is unfathomable to imagine unloading all of those stresses on a stranger in the mental health community, it is unfathomable how we are going to see through the darkness that can suddenly surround us.
I even grew up in a household that is open to seeing mental health care providers. Members of my family regularly see them, one of my grandpa’s was a board certified psychiatrist most of his medical career (he was also at one time a board certified general surgeon). Even knowing all of that, even knowing we are prone to anxiety and depression, I still had to peel myself off the bathroom floor, face the stunned look of my husband, and force myself to admit something was wrong before I could even begin to address the issue.
Let There Be Light
Immediately after posting my story on Instagram and Facebook I was flooded with support that was both heartwarming and relieving: I was not alone. After the article was published by the Guardian and literally hundreds of individuals stepped forward with their stories I realized the sheer volume of support and understanding within the agricultural community. Hopefully now that many individuals have shined a spotlight on this crisis the light will not diminish and die. We cannot allow this issue to be banished to the corners of agriculture’s society again – and we will continue to be able to provide the support each other needs as well as develop the type of programs necessary to literally save our lives on a state, federal and global level.
Please if you are struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issues reach out to your family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers on social media who will soon become friends. Also keep the following number and information stored in your phone for emergencies:
In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found atwww.befrienders.org.
Agriculture Specific Hotlines:
Farmer hotline at 1-800-FARM-AID (1-800-327-6243). Joe and other Farm Aid staff answer the hotline Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. eastern time.