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‘My story felt so small’ — FFA members call for action on mental health



Even after succeeding in the showring, winning the National FFA Proficiency in Ag Sales, and flourishing in college, Maddie Caldwell knows how all-consuming anxiety and depression can be. As an Illinois farm girl who sets the bar high, it’s not easy for Maddie to talk about her personal struggles.

“I want to get one person to feel a little less alone,” she says.

Maddie attempted suicide twice at age 22. She’s not always comfortable talking about mental health, even now — but she wants to be open enough to encourage people in agriculture to get help.

She’s lived the difference in generational attitudes toward mental health, with grandparents who have a hard time talking about Maddie’s anxiety, suicide attempts, and subsequent medications. She tries to help them understand her brain was broken and emphasizes that mental health is health.

“My brain chemistry was off” Maddie explains. “If I broke my arm, what would happen?” She goes on to describe the tests that would be run, X-rays, and then a diagnosis. The same is true for her self-described “broken brain” — but no one can see that like a broken arm. It’s equally important to get help in both scenarios, but harder to figure out what’s going on in the brain.

Image courtesy of Maddie Caldwell

When help is needed, she recommends starting the conversation with a doctor as a baseline, who will likely refer you to a specialist, and in turn, a therapist. She found her perfect combination when she finally had a therapist and psychiatrist under the same roof, so they could compare notes and get the right mix of counseling and medication.

Maddie warns that it can take years to happen, but to stay the course.

“Find what best fits your needs.” She believes virtual therapy is a good fit for people in agriculture because of the flexibility and anonymity it offers. Maddie went through different therapists before finding the perfect combination of counseling and medication — similar to finding the right physical therapy and medication after physical trauma.

Her intentions around suicide changed because of one very impactful moment. “Seeing my dad on his knees in the middle of the road as the ambulance door closed will forever be burned in my mind. I knew I could never do that to him again,” she says.

When I asked her about signs to look for in young people, she said any time a family member or friend stops activities they once enjoyed, it’s time to get help. She talked about how important family meals were as she grew up — but she started secluding herself from that time, which was a huge sign, along with a huge change in appetite. She suggests watching for sudden changes in behavior.

“My story felt so small, but now I realize differently,” she says.

Image courtesy of Jaden Maze

Part of Maddie’s perspective shift started when Jaden Maze, an FFA member in Indiana interviewed Maddie. Jaden’s resulting speech about mental health and agriculture went on to win Indiana’s Prepared Speaking contest and has since been heard by hundreds.

“As a young adult involved in agriculture myself, I understand Maddie’s hopelessness — similar to how many others in agriculture currently feel,” Jaden says. “We have lost our vision for the future throughout the fluctuations of the last decade. Leading up to 2020, weather challenges and trade wars contributed to a decrease in net income for many farmers. Enter COVID-19: Schools, restaurants, and processing plants across the country closed, forcing farmers to dump milk down the drain, euthanize animals, and leave produce to rot.”

In her moving speech, Jaden highlighted Ohio State University research that shows youth who live in rural America face suicide rates double that of those who live in urban areas, and only 3 percent of rural communities in the country offer suicide prevention services specifically for youth. Couple that with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that agriculture is the leading occupation for suicide — along with our stubbornness in seeking help — and it’s pretty clear why we have a crisis.

She called on agriculture to normalize conversations about mental health to create a new vision, citing an American Farm Bureau Federation survey that showed 87 percent of farmers have expressed it is important to reduce the stigma of mental health in agriculture. Jaden, like Maddie, has experience with the differences in how generations approach stress and is now an Indiana state FFA officer working to change that.

Jaden’s speech advanced through the rounds at the National FFA Convention and became one of the final four in the 2022 National Prepared Speaking contest, and she asks each of us to act.

“The solution to addressing these problems and creating a new vision for agriculture starts with you. Educate yourself, advocate to others, and take action,” Jaden says.

  1. Educate. How can you learn about mental health? Research statistics, evaluate your own mental health, and obtain the treatment that is best for you. Pay attention to the mental health struggles of others, especially your loved ones impacted by farm stress. Signs of stress include: withdrawing socially, change in mood or routine, rapid weight gain or loss, increased use of drugs or alcohol, and decline in the appearance of the farm. Proper nutrition, adequate sleep, exercise, and talking to people you trust can go a long way in bettering one’s mental health.
  2. Advocate. How can you spread the word? Take opportunities to speak publicly, raise awareness on social media, or support rural mental health legislation. Promote resources that are becoming more available, such as the Farm Crisis Center, Purdue Extension Farm Stress Teams, and international organizations such as the Do More Ag Foundation in Canada.
  3. Act. How can you help others? Bring the mental health discussion into your school and community. After a student died by suicide at my school, I helped start our first mental health club to provide better resources for students who are struggling; this has taught me the dire need of having difficult conversations. If someone you know shows signs of degrading mental health, be transparent with them. You will not plant the idea of suicide by asking them directly if they plan on harming themselves (Downes, 2022). That person will be grateful you cared enough to ask, and you will be, too.

Making a difference starts with your choice to find hope through healing. Maddie Caldwell wants you to know, “It is OK to not be OK, but don’t stay there. Will you be a part of a new vision for the future? If each of us stand up for the mental well-being of agriculture, our rural communities can change to a new lens. I believe in the future of agriculture and that we all can exert an influence in our homes and communities. Do you?”

Jaden and Maddie are both examples of young people passionate enough to share their story to help change the conversation. Will you join them?

Michele Payn speaks and writes to help the people of agriculture have the tough conversations about managing stress, connecting with consumers, and making sense of science. Learn more at causematters.com/growthjournal or follow @mpaynspeaker on social media.

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