ROCK ISLAND, Ill. — When a person suffers from depression or anxiety it changes their ability to function.
“If someone is losing control of who they want to be and they are losing hope, that’s a big red flag,” said Adrienne DeSutter, an agricultural mental health specialist, who spoke during the Women in Agriculture conference presented by Illinois Farm Bureau.
DeSutter began talking about mental health and agriculture in 2018 when a farm friend died by suicide.
“We were at the visitation and the line was out the door because a farm family has a lot of friends,” she said. “People kept asking why.”
Suicide isn’t something that just happens — it’s an accumulation of things, said DeSutter, whose family operates a corn and soybean farm that also includes a herd of cattle. “It starts with mental health conditions like depression or anxiety that are unmet or mismanaged and sometimes it starts with stress.”
Research in mental health shows that farmers rank higher than most occupations in stress and behavior conditions like depression and anxiety.
“A study by my friend found that 70% of young farmers showed symptoms of anxiety,” DeSutter said.
“When you have chronic stress, the decision-making part of your brain is impacted,” she said.
According to a study by the University of Iowa, in the lowest year, farmers were two to three times more likely to die from suicide than other occupations and in the highest year, that number is seven times more likely.
DeSutter identified several stressors that impact farm families including financial issues and the fear of losing the farm.
“There is a generational weight on your shoulders so you don’t just lose it for your family, you also lose it for your dad, your grandma or whoever started the business,” she said.
In addition there are all sorts of uncontrollables such as pests, diseases, war or the economy.
“Farmers have a stressful working environment. There’s isolation, long work hours and working alongside family,” DeSutter said. “You’re working until the work is done. But you can be a strong, tough farmer and stop picking corn at 10 p.m., but we lose sight of that because of the way we’ve been raised.”
The mental health specialist encourages those involved in the agricultural industry to get uncomfortable and start talking about mental health.
“When one person takes a leap of faith to share a story, write an article, have a conversation or attend a mental health session, that opens the door for more conversation,” she said. “We all have mental health just like we all have physical health.”
Talking about mental health issues is weird, DeSutter admitted.
“This is always going to be something that’s a little icky, but we can do hard things if we know it’s going to make a big difference,” she said.
It is important, DeSutter said, to take action and not wait for someone to reach out for help.
“Most farmers are not going to make phone calls willingly,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re doing the asking and talk about what you’re noticing.”
If a person is concerned that someone is thinking about suicide, DeSutter said, it is important to ask them about their intentions.
“Say it in a way that makes sense for you and it’s very important you’re clear about what you’re asking,” she said. “Don’t beat around the bush. Clearly say that, ‘I need to know if you’re going to be alive tomorrow.’”
Asking a question about suicide will not put the idea into someone’s mind, the mental health specialist said.
“That’s not how it works,” she said. “What happens is that person feels heard and seen — sometimes for the first time in years.”
Listening is most important aspect.
“The majority of people who are struggling just need someone to listen to them,” DeSutter said. “So, giving someone the opportunity to get it off their shoulders is a lot of times what they need.”
For people in a state of crisis, DeSutter said, create a safe space for them.
“Then when they feel ready to talk, they know you’re someone they can come to without judgment,” DeSutter said.
“You are only in charge of you — you can’t control another person, you can’t send a person to therapy and you can’t get them on meds,” she said. “This also means if someone hurts themselves it’s not on you. Do what you can, but remember they make their own decisions.”
If someone is in immediate danger, call 911, a crisis line, a therapist, a doctor or a behavioral health center.
The Farm Resource Initiative at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine Center for Rural Health and Social Services Development created a hotline for farm families at 833-FARM-SOS.
“You don’t have to be in crisis to call this number, it’s a helpline,” DeSutter said. “They have farm specific counselors trained to talk to agriculturists.”
Since eliminating all stress is unlikely, DeSutter encourages people to trade the huge for hugs.
“Make an intentional effort to practice paying attention to small things and make the moments count,” she said.
“It’s OK to cry or to be angry as long as you’re OK with the consequence,” DeSutter said. “If you’re going to get angry and yell at your spouse, you have to be ready for the consequences.”
“Being a positive human doesn’t mean you’re happy all the time,” she said. “It means you know it’s going to be OK at some point.”