Having 'brave conversations'
Row-crop grower and swine producer Bob Hemesath is no stranger to speaking out on behalf of the agricultural community, whether in national news interviews, visits to Capitol Hill or hosting groups on his farm in northeast Iowa.
At the recent 2020 Commodity Classic in San Antonio, however, Hemesath’s advocacy became extremely personal during a panel presentation on mental health hosted by the National Corn Growers Association. The fourth-generation farmer talked candidly about his struggles with depression and the challenges he and fellow producers face in talking about their problems and finding professional help.
“When they were looking for a farmer to be on this panel, I offered to do it myself,” Hemesath said. “I’ve dealt with depression for 20 years. It can be difficult, but for me, the biggest issue is getting over the stigma of mental health, especially among farmers. We think we’re tough; we shouldn’t have those problems. We have to get past that. It’s a health issue. Period.”
Aptly titled “Brave Conversations,” the panel also included perspectives from Cammy Hazim, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Sue Springer, who founded the Suicide Prevention Corporation of Iowa County, Wisc., in 2014 after losing her brother to suicide. The discussion was moderated by Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, of which MFA Incorporated is a member.
“Over the past few years, there’s been growing concern over mental health issues in rural America,” Conner said. “In particular, we have seen an increase in people dying by suicide and more efforts by local communities, co-ops, government agencies and trade associations to improve suicide prevention. Agriculture can be a stressful way of life, and some of the traits that make the best farmers—independence, self-reliance, stoicism—often get in the way when they need to seek help. We hope to change that dialogue.”
Indeed, Hemesath said, the inherent isolation of farming often makes it more difficult for producers to talk about the problems and pressures negatively affecting their mental health.
“As a farmer, you work alone a lot,” he said. “There are days where I don’t interact much with people at all. That makes it hard to reach out, especially when I’m feeling down. It makes you want to become even more reclusive or just work harder and hope that feeling will go away. Well, I’ve learned it doesn’t go away if you don’t deal with it and find ways to cope.”
In those situations, suicide can be a very real threat for people who don’t share their thoughts with others or seek professional care, Hazim warned. Recasting mental health conditions in the same light as someone with cancer, diabetes or heart disease can go a long way toward eliminating the stigma that often keeps people from getting the help they need, she said.
“Suicide really is a health issue. The brain is part of our body, and a lot of times we forget that,” Hazim said. “We also know through our research that suicide is preventable. Just like heart attacks have risk factors and warning signs, so does suicide.”
Those warning signs are typically in the form of talk, behavior and mood, Hazim continued. People who talk about ending their lives, dealing with unbearable pain or feeling trapped could be having suicidal thoughts, she said, even if those things are said casually or kiddingly.
Other suicidal signals are behaviors such as increased substance abuse, sleeping too much or not enough, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities or giving away possessions. Though depression is most often associated with suicide, Hazim explained, other mood changes that can indicate such risk include apathy, rage, irritability, impulsivity and anxiety.
“Trust your gut,” she said. “If you are worried about someone and feel something isn’t right, say something. Don’t be afraid to ask directly, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ It’s a myth that if you ask someone about suicide, you’re going to plant a seed in their head. In so many situations, you just need to be a good listener.”
Support exists for people who need help with those conversations, said Springer, who is a certified trainer in the “QPR” method for suicide prevention—question, persuade, refer. She said learning how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade, and refer someone to help can save the life of a friend or loved one.
“Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. It might be scary, but keeping silent won’t help,” Springer said. “Speaking up lets people know you want to help them get through this hard time. And you don’t have to do it alone. Whether you are struggling yourself or worried about someone else, there are resources out there to help.”
The organization she founded in Wisconsin offers extensive online resources at suicide-iowacountywi.org as does Hazim’s organization, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, at afsp.org. The National Suicide Hotline can be reached any time by calling 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. The American Farm Bureau also provides mental health resources through the Farm State of Mind/Rural Resilience program.
While such assistance is valuable, the shortage of mental health professionals is an ongoing problem, especially in rural areas, Hemesath said. For those who do have access to therapy, it’s even more difficult to find someone who understands agriculture.
“That’s not easy to do,” Hemesath said. “One therapist couldn’t understand why I couldn’t come in for an appointment on the first of May. I’m kind of busy then. We’re planting corn. I’m not saying that we need special therapists, but we need therapists who relate to farmers.”
All the panelists agreed that there is a critical need to bridge the gap in mental health care for rural areas while recognizing such changes don’t happen easily or quickly. In the meantime, they hope raising awareness will encourage more brave conversations in the farming community.
“The notion we are in a period where mental stress and suicide are increasing among those who feed and clothe and provide energy for us is just not acceptable,” Conner said. “While we struggle for those solutions, we’re not going to drop this topic. We’re going to continue to work to make sure that people have the resources they need.”
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