See something, say something: How to help a farmer struggling with mental illness


Agriculture is commonly noted as being the last industry to make transactions on a handshake and an individual’s good word. Relationships are paramount, and — by and large — we look out for each other. When tragedy strikes one of our own in the form of death, disability, or disease, we’re right there with a hot dish, a hug, and harvesting equipment, depending on the time of year.

However, when the wounds are a little less visible — such as the scars that tear us apart on the inside — we clam up. Mental health is an uncomfortable topic both in and of itself, as is how to address it. It should make us uncomfortable that our profession has a higher suicide rate than that of veterans and one of the highest overall. It should make us uncomfortable that one in four Americans will experience a major depressive episode at some point in their lifetime. It shouldn’t make us uncomfortable, though, to be that person to open the door and get the one who’s struggling the help that they need. That’s just what we’ve been doing all along for those more visible wounds.

Think of the farmer stereotype — strong and stoic, but with big hearts. Many hearts, especially with five years of depressed prices and nonexistent margins, are being broken though. Farmers can’t provide for their families no matter how many extra hours they work or extra jobs they take, and the weather has been far from cooperative. These pressures have destroyed marriages, they have broken homes, and for some — they have ended lives. A prolonged feeling of failure and being a burden, despite every superhuman effort to do one’s best, can be the tipping point into full-blown anxiety and depression, and those strong hearts and broad shoulders are being crushed by the weight of the things they carry — often alone and in silence until it’s too late.

Nearly every story about a suicide includes something along the lines of “we never saw this coming, but looking back, all the signs were there.” While one of the most obvious signs of suicidal thinking is talking about dying by suicide, what are some of the lesser known signals that someone is drowning in front of our very eyes?

According to an article on the Farm Journal website from last May, some other inklings that someone may be thinking of ending their lives (or suffering from major depression at the very least) are not limited to, but include:

  • talking about feeling hopeless, trapped, or in unbearable pain
  • talking about or asking if they’re a burden to others
  • increased use of alcohol and/or other controlled substances
  • drastic changes in behavior
  • sleeping too little or too much
  • changes for the worse in both personal appearance and farm appearance
  • withdrawing from normal activities
  • feeling isolated
  • engaging in other risky behaviors
  • saying goodbye to family and friends

If you see any of these in someone you know, or if something seems off but you can’t quite put a finger on it, trust your gut and take that leap. Ask them how they’re really doing aside from the usual shop talk about prices and weather. Ask them pointedly if they’re thinking about suicide; it is a myth that talking about suicide with a suicidal individual will drive them to that point. Open your heart and your ears, and take everything they say seriously. Tell a family member or another friend of theirs that they’re struggling so you aren’t trying to help them by yourself. Give them all the time they need to pour it all out to someone who’s giving them the time and space they need to talk about what’s hurting them. Keep regular contact with them and encourage them to lay it all out there with you. Persuade them to seek professional help from a healthcare provider and counselor, and offer to accompany them to any appointments. If the situation becomes extremely dire and you feel that their life is in immediate danger, call 911 (particularly if you walk in on them attempting suicide) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to speak with a trained counselor, and stay with the person until help arrives.

Be prepared for the unexpected, and be prepared to not know what to say or do if those broken hearts come undone right in your lap. After all, mental health is not an easy topic to talk about, especially when the other person is in so much pain that they don’t see another way out of what’s suffocating them. It’s OK to not know exactly what to say or do for the person in that moment, but your time and your compassion are two of the greatest gifts you can give to someone who’s hurting. You may feel embarrassed if the person is genuinely fine, but that’s a heck of a lot better than wishing you’d said something as you’re listening to their eulogy. You may not be able to take the storms of their life away, but you can sit with them during the storms until they pass.

Most importantly, it’s OK to not be OK. Just remember that if something is off about someone you know and love, say something. You’ll never regret making the ask, but you’ll always regret not asking when it’s too late.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: call 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24/7

Crisis Text Line: text HELLO to 741741, available 24/7


This article was written by Brittany Olson is a Barron County (Wis.) Farm Bureau member, dairy farmer, writer, photographer, and mental health advocate. It was republished here with permission.

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