By Matt Reese
It is no secret: stress is a part of farm life. The unique challenges of a family farm can place huge burdens on farmers who often have little control of factors determining the success or failure of the operation that serves as their family heritage, livelihood and, often, their identity.
When times get tough, it is all too common that the unthinkable happens. There has been an alarming trend in America where rural populations have a significantly higher suicide rate than urban areas. Available information indicates the suicide rate among farmers is 3.5 times higher than the general population, according to the National Rural Health Association.
With these staggering statistics in mind, efforts are being made to change the conversation about mental health in rural Ohio. This, of course, includes the agribusiness community.
“The Ohio AgriBusiness Association recognizes that our member companies’ employees have deep, personal relationships with their customers that put them in a unique position when it comes to identifying and helping farmers struggling with mental health issues,” said Chris Henney, president and CEO for the Ohio AgriBusiness Association. “It is important that they have the training and resources to help.”
In 2021, Ohio State University Mental Health Awareness Team members were able to bring Mental Health First Aid training to rural Ohio. Mental Health First Aid is a skills-based training course that teaches participants about mental health and substance-use issues, said Jami Dellifield, with Ohio State University Extension. The program is a blended format in partnership with the Ohio State University Farm and Rural Health Task Force with funding from the USDA Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. The course was offered free of charge on March 5, April 2, May 7, and June 4 of 2021. Additional courses will be offered Aug. 6 and Oct. 1 from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Register by emailing Bridget Britton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ohio Ag Net’s Kolt Buchenroth and Ty Higgins with Ohio Farm Bureau took the course in May and were surprised at how much they learned.
“It is just like getting CPR training or regular first aid training. There is nothing wrong with some first aid training for your brain too. This teaches you what to look for, what to listen for and what you can do about getting someone some help. It is just a matter of watching a couple of videos, doing the zoom call, and taking the test. Then you print out the certificate and you’re good to go,” Buchenroth said. “Hopefully agribusinesses will be able to take advantage of this training and whoever is at the local elevator, the coffee shop or the bank can understand the signs, maybe before the farmer knows about them. Every year we talk about farm safety. Your brain is an organ just like any other. If you fall and break a bone, you go and get treated for it. This is no different.”
Those involved in Ohio’s agribusinesses are in a unique position to help.
“Not many people get to visit with farmers on the level that we do. Agriculture hasn’t been the easiest ever, particularly over the last couple of decades. We have seen farmer suicides increase by 40% in the last 20 years. It is obviously a topic that needs a lot more discussion. It is something people have been whispering about since I was a kid,” Higgins said. “I went through the crisis of the mid-80s when farmers were having to decide whether to continue on in agriculture or do something else and in some instances they couldn’t see a path out of agriculture and chose to end their life because of what was happening on their farm.”
The training helped provide insights into mental health, understanding of signs to watch for and ways to handle tough conversations.
“If you can get to a farmer and visit with them and maybe ask the right question you maybe can help. If you can save one farmer’s life or change one farmer’s way of thinking about a way out of a situation they are in, that training is well worth it. It was about a day and a half of training. I learned way more than I thought I would,” Higgins said. “There were a lot of uncomfortable conversations. The hardest thing to me was they asked us to say out loud, ‘Are you thinking of killing yourself?’ I get chills now. You have to get used to saying those things out loud. You have to get used to being direct with somebody who might be going down a path that might not be a healthy one. I said it in my head first. They said, ‘Now say it out loud’ and I couldn’t. When you hear it coming out of your mouth it sounds a whole lot different than when you hear it in your head. I hope I never have to ask that question in a conversation with a farmer, but if I do, boy I’m ready now. That was the hardest part for me, though, asking that question out loud. What scares me is the answer that might come back. Those are hard conversations, but they are conversations we have to have.”
With the training, Higgins is able to take his years of experience in, and understanding of, Ohio’s farm community and pair it with what experts understand about mental health.
“We all have farmers calling us on their cell phones to talk about whatever they have on their minds. I have had conversations with farmers when I hang up the phone and say, ‘Man I hope I handled that situation right.’ With this training, now I know how to handle situations like that. Anyone who needs to call me, call me. It’ll be between you and I and the gatepost. You need to get it off your mind. I am here to listen,” Higgins said. “I have so much respect for every single farmer I’ve worked with and I’m willing to be there for you and get you the help you need. We have to realize that a farmer might be asking in a different way and we have to step up to the plate and get our job done. Farmers are more than just their farm. They are a father, a brother, a mother, an aunt, a grandparent. They are more than what they do in that tractor.”
It is important to understand the signs of mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association, it may be useful to follow up with a mental health professional if several of the following issues are occurring: sleep or appetite changes, mood changes, withdrawal, drop in functioning at school, work or social activities, problems thinking and concentration, increased sensitivity, loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity, feeling disconnected, illogical thinking, nervousness, or unusual behavior.
Even though some of the big picture challenges in agriculture have improved, there is still plenty of potential for mental health challenges within Ohio’s farming communities.
“Things are pretty good right now, but a lot of what is happening in the mental health space may have started years ago. It just kind of sits and festers when they are in the combine cab by themselves. This is going to continue to be an issue for farmers,” Higgins said. “It is not our job to put them on a couch to talk about their feelings. We just need to realize what we need to be looking for when talking with farmers and be a conduit to the help they might need and break that stigma. Stigma is a huge issue in agriculture when it comes to mental health. We are starting to break through that a little bit.”
For mental health resources from American Farm Bureau, visit farmstateofmind.org. Farmers and their families can reach out to a mental health provider or visit the Ohio Department of Agriculture #gotyourback resource page at gotyourback.org. If you’re experiencing a crisis, call a free, confidential crisis line at 1-800-273-8255, or text “4hope” to 741741. Visit go.osu.edu/agcrisis for additional resources. In an emergency, call 911.