Keep a close watch on rural mental health this holiday season

By Matt Reese

While it can be the most wonderful time of the year for many, it can also be the most challenging time of year for others. Though some situations in Ohio agriculture turned out better than feared, 2019 was still a tough year for farms in the state that was preceded by several tough years. All these factors converge to make it an excellent time to keep an eye on friends and family members in the farming community who may be experiencing significant stress this holiday season.

Jolene Brown, a farm wife, author and professional speaker, spends quite a bit of time talking about the importance of mental health in the farm community, which can be especially important this time of year. First, it is so important to remember the farmer is more important than the farm.

“Who we are is what we do, and that’s how we see ourselves. Separating self-worth from net worth is very, very difficult. It comes with a great deal of pain and a great deal of weight on the shoulders,” Brown said. “As a young man said to me, his grandpa talked to him about how he had started the farm way back when, and dad practically gave it to you, and now you’re going to lose it. And the young man said, ‘And I’m pushing a stroller. I wanted it to be here for the next generation, but Jolene, we’re going to lose it all.’”

Sometimes, for a wide variety of reasons, the farmer and the farm need to be separated (and that is alright). One farm loss situation was so painful Brown suggested that the family move far away.

Jolene Brown from Iowa talked about family farm transitions and mental health.

“You have to start with addressing the pain, getting the help and realizing you’re not alone. And I did have one family where the pressure was so much that I suggested they physically move to another state. I said, ‘You can’t look out your window and see this land every morning and every night, it’s too much for you. It has already broken a lot of your family and a lot of your spirit. You’re going to need to move to another state and just start over. And build on your strengths, not what you’ve lost, what you’ve got left,’” Brown said. “That doesn’t happen easily, nor does it happen overnight. But I have seen it happen. Sometimes you’re the puppet and sometimes you’ve been the puppeteer. You’ve been controlling things, and sometimes you do have to cut the string and leave. Because even though sometimes you don’t have control, you’re not powerless. So some of what we can do is to help them find what power they do have and to build on that. And then our farm income, once they start working for somebody else, without all the pressure of having to make the decisions to go to the bank, they begin to build their worth again as well and move forward.”

Sometimes this challenging process can start with a simple conversation. Brown stressed the importance of talking with someone about stress.

“I talked yesterday with a fellow who was pretty downtrodden and he’s been crying a lot. He’s not sleeping at night. The pressures are heavy, and I said to him, ‘You have a sore throat.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t.’ I said, ‘Yes, you do, because I want you to call your family doctor and you’re going to make an appointment for your sore throat,” Brown said. “You can get an appointment for a sore throat —you can relate to a physical problem. When the doctor comes in you can say, ‘I really don’t have a sore throat, but let me tell you what’s going on.’ And it’s kind of like the pressure comes off, like you have a legitimate reason now to talk to someone. I have talked to 18 rural family doctors recently from different states, and they all said, if you can get them into us, we’re all attuned to what’s going on. We will help them.”

Starting or facilitating those conversations can be challenging, but the alternative can be so much worse.

“For the last 15-plus years the rate of suicide has continued to increase in Ohio and across the nation. I think the rise has been somewhere in the order of 25% to 30% during that time,” said Dr. Justin Trevino, the medical director for Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services. “It’s not new, but the numbers are rising and we need to do better. We really have come through the science of learning more about suicide, and deaths by suicide are preventable deaths.”

Friends, family and community can be a key component in prevention.

This panel of experts joined us for a podcast discussion on mental health at the Farm Science Review.

“Farm life is very stressful. That’s part of the deal,” Trevino said. “People do care, and part of what we are talking about is just this whole awareness. This is not just people in the farm community or the mental health community, but the people who provide loans and Extension agents and everyone you interact with, you all need to become aware of

There are numerous resources available. One of them is the ALGEE program from Mental Health First Aid. ALGEE stands for:

  • Assess for risk of suicide or harm
    • Listen nonjudgmentally
    • Give reassurance and information
    • Encourage appropriate professional help
    • Encourage self-help and other support strategies.

“It is a program that you can take where you can become certified as a mental health first aider. You learn to apply some different tips and tricks,” said Jami Dellifield, Hardin County Extension family and consumer sciences educator. ”You need to actually come out and ask, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ The second is to listen non-judgmentally. And part of listening non-judgmentally is that we want to make sure that we are not listening to fix and not listening to answer for response. We just need to listen and be okay with silence, then we’re going to give reassurance and information.”

Those experiencing excessive stress or mental health problems should:

  • Talk about how they’re feeling
  • Make an appointment with clergy
  • Make an appointment with a medical professional
  • Take time off the farm.

Ohio’s #gotyourback Campaign was launched to offer mental health resources to Ohio’s agricultural community through a collaborative effort. The #gotyourback campaign kick-off was held in early September at Weber Farms in Franklin County.

Supporting partners include: RecoveryOhio, The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, Farm Credit Mid-America, Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association, Ohio Cattlemen’s Association, Ohio AgriBusiness Association, Ohio Poultry Association, Ohio Pork Council, Ohio Dairy Producers Association, Ohio Soybean Association, and Ohio Sheep Improvement Association. Farmers and their families can reach out to a mental health provider, visit the Ohio Department of Agriculture #gotyourback resource page at, call a free, confidential crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, text “4hope” to 741741, or visit for resources.

“People are not alone,” Dellifield said. “There are mental health first aid instructors all over the state of Ohio and we’re all working together because this is something that is important for everyone. We all know someone who is living not-their-best-life due to mental illness. One in five Americans have been diagnosed with a mental illness. It’s very common. How much better would our world be if we weren’t afraid to have those conversations?”



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