February 27, 2024

Removing the mental health stigma can help farmers receive treatment

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Breaking the stigma of mental health issues is one aspect of helping those who are challenged with stressful situations.

“In my opinion, hearing, listening and acknowledging that mental health issues are a part of everyone’s life is so important,” said Jerry Costello II, director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

“If your mind isn’t healthy, it doesn’t matter how healthy your body is,” said Costello during the welcoming comments at the 2023 Rural Mental Health Summit presented by the Southern Illinois University Medicine Farm Family Resource Initiative.

“One in four farmers in this country admits to dealing with mental health stress over the last year,” he reported.

Farmers are typically stoic and many times hesitant to ask for help.

“Living in small communities, a lot of people are afraid to go to a mental health professional’s office and have their truck sit out in front,” Costello said. “So, having ways that are confidential to address mental health issues is so important in rural communities.”

Farmers who need help can call or text 1-833-FARMSOS. Telehealth counseling sessions with SIU Medicine counselors are available for those in need of additional support.

“Farmers, spouses, farmworkers and children can get six free telemedicine visits,” Costello said.

“I talk to a therapist through telehealth and that has helped me,” said Matt Hulsizer, a fifth-generation farmer who was part of a panel discussion during the summit.

“People of my generation are more willing to talk about mental health issues,” said Hulsizer, who farms near Oneida.

“I have friends that are fighting the same battle, so we can talk about it and be open with each other. But the generation older than me has a harder time opening up.”

“We have had to become very aware of what’s going on with us and be very honest with ourselves,” said Hulsizer’s wife, Liz.

“If I can tell Matt’s anxiety is starting to reach a level where his perception is no longer a reality, we have to have a really hard conversation.”

It is not fun, she said, to talk to your spouse about anxiety, but having the ability to use telehealth has broken down a barrier.

“Especially during planting, he cannot sacrifice three hours off the farm,” she said. “But with telehealth, he can do it in the tractor.”

Greg St. Aubin is a fourth-generation farmer and an advocate for mental health.

“I’m not afraid to let people know that I suffer from mental health issues,” he said during the panel discussion.

“We put together a partnership with neighbor farmers which has helped with the stress,” said St. Aubin, who farms near Manteno.

“We decided to do what we all do best and I have a degree in chemistry, so I do a lot of the soil fertility and I’m in charge of all the decision making when it comes to seed and when we’re going to plant.”

St. Aubin passed the stressful jobs to someone else in the operation.

“We are able to work together as a team and be pretty effective,” he said.

It is important, St. Aubin said, to inform people about his limitations.

“If I had a broken arm, everyone would understand what I could or couldn’t do and they would be very accommodating,” he said.

“Sometimes when the stress of the day gets to me, I’ve got to take care of myself,” he said. “I’m not trying to get out of a responsibility, but I’ve got to do my therapy so that I can be healthy for the long run.”

Although St. Aubin is now an advocate of medication for mental health treatment, that was not always the case.

“I did not want to take medicine because of the stigma,” he said. “I wouldn’t have trouble taking blood pressure medicine, but I certainly wasn’t going to take an antidepressant.”

St. Aubin struggled with anxiety and depression for three years partially because he did not want to get professional help.

“My doctor explained to me it’s no different than having diabetes — I have a brain disease that needs to be treated and medication is a huge part of it,” he said. “So, I’ve never stopped taking my medicine.”

“You have to keep taking medicine to keep you mind in check. You can’t just stop when you’re feeling good,” Hulsizer agreed.

“If you’re taking chemo, you don’t take just half a dose,” he said. “So, you don’t do that with your mental health medicine. It’s not dependence. It’s something you need.”

Finding a counselor that understands the farming occupation has been a challenge for the Hulsizers.

“They don’t have the knowledge of what farming is, so there’s no awareness of our needs,” Liz said. “We don’t have a stop at the end of the day when we’re no longer thinking about our job.”

“When I’m planting corn, I may go 36 hours without sleep,” Matt said. “This past summer when it was really hot, I was spraying from 3 to 9:30 a.m. and I still worked until 8 at night.”

One of the missions in Kankakee County is to encourage farmers to work together more, said St. Aubin, who is president of the Kankakee County Farm Bureau.

“Farmers’ business is on display for everybody to see,” he said. “Your competition drives by your business every day.”

“We put three farm operations together and most farmers are not willing to do that,” he said. “But I can take a day off and I don’t have to worry about things I’m not that good at.”

For more information about the Farm Family Resource Initiative, visit siumed.org/farm.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor