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Breaking the stigma of farmer suicides

After the death of their son, the Hennemans are teaching about the warning signs and how to respond.

It’s been 13 years since Phil and Julie Henneman lost their adult son, Keith, to suicide. A dairying couple from Boscobel, Wisconsin, the Hennemans (shown here with granddaughter Jaden) had sold their cattle and equipment to Keith and taken off-the-farm jobs.

But Johne’s disease hit the herd, devastating the dairy. Keith held the depth of his discouragement inside, and his sudden death came as a shock to his family. He was 29.

“We think about him every day,” says Julie.

Just as Keith is uppermost in their minds, so is their work for others on his behalf. Determined to prevent further loss of life by suicide, Phil says: “We have to break the stigma surrounding suicide that keeps people from talking about it. We plant hope when we encourage people to speak freely about their thoughts of suicide.”

Aiming to sow hope and save lives, the Hennemans became certified QPR Trainers. The QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention teaches lay and professional “gatekeepers” the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond.

“A gatekeeper helps people stuck in hopelessness see that there’s light after the darkness,” says Phil.

Besides presenting QPR trainings in classrooms, hospitals, businesses, and to other community groups, the Hennemans volunteer their time to the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County Wisconsin (SPCICWI). The coalition also serves six neighboring counties.

The coalition’s vision is of “suicide-free communities where people will recognize the warning signs, intervene, and help individuals find hope.”

“In rural communities people often don’t feel comfortable reaching out to trained professionals,” says coalition founder Sue Springer Judd. “But they do feel free to reach out to a friend. It takes a village to make a difference.”

Springer Judd lost her brother, Donald Springer, to suicide in 2012. He was 41 and left behind three children. Donald was a plumber and a beef farmer.

After Donald’s death, Springer Judd looked for support networks or services to help with the unique needs of those struggling with thoughts of suicide or grieving a loved one lost to suicide. “I found nothing for us, and that frustrated me,” she says. “The only support group available was Compassionate Friends, which is focused on the parents who have lost a child.”

Equipped with determination and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, Springer Judd founded the SPCICWI in 2014, using just $6,000 in start-up funds. “My work with the coalition is an active form of grieving for me,” she says.

The activities of the coalition focus on breaking down the social stigma surrounding suicide. Public service announcements, press releases, and fundraisers encourage people to watch for the signs of suicidal behavior and be willing to intervene.

“If you saw someone fall and hit their heads, you would automatically rush in to help,” she reasons. “The feelings of hopelessness shaping suicidal thoughts are another form of pain. But because the feelings are internal, you can’t see the hurt. Due to stigmas, people tend to feel uncomfortable reaching out. But suicidal people are not themselves; they’re not thinking clearly. They need help just as much as if they had suffered an external head injury.”

Signs of suicidal thoughts include expressions of hopelessness, isolation, lack of purpose, and guilt or shame. Agitated behaviors, abuse of drugs or alcohol, and reckless actions also point to suicidal tendencies.

“Listen to any little gut instinct you have that something is not right with your friend or someone you meet,” says Springer Judd. “And then ask! Say something! Ask if they’re OK. Don’t ignore it and just walk away.”

Phil Henneman says, “Ask an open-ended question that will invite the person to just start talking. If you believe they’re a danger to themselves or otherwise need professional help, persuade them to find that help. Help could come from a psychologist, a mental-health therapist, or a clergy member.”

If hurting individuals balk at the idea of seeking professional help, Phil suggests offering to help them make the appointment – and offering to go with them to the appointment.

Yet finding appropriate professional help can be the most challenging piece to fit into the puzzle surrounding rural mental health. The Hennemans and Springer Judd speak with a unified voice when they describe the obstacles blocking effective relationships between therapists and farmers. The roadblocks include cost, lack of health insurance, appointment-wait times that are too long to address crisis needs, a culture clash between farmers and therapists, and appointment schedules that conflict with farm tasks needing to be done at set times.

Nevertheless, in their outreach to others, the Hennemans encourage hurting people to persevere in seeking needed professional help and the medications that may help them break their cycle of hopelessness.

Getting “everyday” people involved in helping to spot individuals stuck in hopelessness, listening to them, and urging them to seek help is the critical bridge between despair and the hope of finding help, says Springer Judd. The SPCICWI website is chock-full of ways you can help hurting people and even includes how-to tips for starting a suicide-prevention coalition in your own community. (Click on “Suicide Prevention.”)

Springer Judd initially reached out to others to generate support for the formation of a local suicide-prevention coalition. “We are now a group of concerned citizens from a variety of professions including law enforcement, a mortician, a therapist, educators, religious personnel, medical personnel, and Survivors of a Suicide Loss,” she says.

The $6,000 Springer Judd used to launch the SPCICWI came from a fundraiser she organized. In addition to applying annually for two grants, the coalition earns the lion’s share of its money through individual donations and fundraisers. Springer Judd and other volunteers help present suicide-awareness and -intervention events, such as local public service announcements, speaking presentations, QPR Trainings, and sales of informational tee-shirts.

The Hennemans believe the work is paying off. Small discussion groups have formed in surrounding communities to help farmers talk about stress and suicide intervention.

“I get calls from groups of three or four people who want to get together for a QPR Training,” says Phil. “When we help someone using the QPR process, we can help them find hope; we can help them see that there is life after the struggling.”

Says Julie: “We have to help people understand that it’s important for them to talk about feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide. Encouraging them to talk and letting them know that someone cares about them could actually save a life.”

Make A Difference

uicide was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate went up more than 30% in half of the states since 1999.

Farmers are particularly vulnerable. Study results reported by the University of Iowa in 2017 indicate that the annual suicide rate among farmers and agricultural workers across the country from 1992 to 2010 was higher than that of workers in other industries.

QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) Training sets individuals as Gatekeepers within communities to watch for signs of suicide and take steps to intervene.

Check with local agencies to find certified QPR Trainers in your region.

The QPR Institute provides online classes in QPR Gatekeeper Training for Suicide Prevention. Visit

Learn More

Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County Wisconsin

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

The National Farmers Union Online Directory of Local Resources

For Help In Crisis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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