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Reach Out to Those Struggling with Mental Health

When you notice someone battling depression or having thoughts of suicide, don't wait for them to ask for help.

Suicide has been in the headlines a lot lately, specifically surrounding celebrities who have taken their own lives. Meanwhile, far away from the spotlight, those employed in the farming, fishing, and forestry industries are dying by suicide at six times the national average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC reports that 90 out of every 100,000 workers in these industries actually commit suicide, which means the number of attempts and those contemplating suicide is much, much higher. As if that statistic isn’t startling enough, these suicide rates are 50% higher now than during the farm crisis in the 1980s.

Every time news of a new death by suicide breaks, there is a public outcry for the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness to be broken. Social media quickly fills with posts encouraging anyone who may be struggling to seek help.

Live, Laugh, Love

The problem with mental illness, though, is that reaching out for help just doesn’t seem like an option. That’s why it’s so important we all pay attention to the people around us, says Jami Dellifield, an educator with Ohio State University Extension. She says if behaviors are affecting a person’s ability to live, laugh, and love, he or she may need help.

“You may notice a person isn’t wanting to go to church, or out to the movies with friends, or play bingo anymore,” Dellifield says. “If someone is finding excuses not to do things that used to be a very integral part of life and is shutting off from friends, you should reach out.”

If a person is battling depression, he or she may also exhibit anger, sadness, body aches, and lethargy. Those with bipolar disorder may have disorganized thoughts or manic periods where everything seems to be happening all at once.

“If it’s hard to find little joys in life because things aren’t clicking, every little thing just seems worse,” she says. “It’s like if you have arthritis and knitting doesn’t give you the same joy it used to because your fingers aren’t working properly. If your brain is telling you untruths, it’s hard to find joy in life.”

Why Agriculture?

The livelihood of farmers, ranchers, and agricultural workers depends largely on factors beyond their control. Not even the best managers can do anything about commodity prices or the weather.

“Since farmers’ careers and lives are so intertwined, if they feel like a failure at farming, they often feel like a failure at life,” Dellifield says. “If your identity is that you’re a farmer and then you lose that, who are you?”

Farmers also feel the pressure of past generations and those to come. “Farmers do sometimes live in the moment, but they often think about what’s coming and what’s in the past,” she says. “They may know Dad or Grandpa struggled, but if they aren’t still here, they can’t ask what they did to cope and survive that time period. It’s an awful reality to feel like you’re letting people down. Plus, if your brain isn’t processing things properly, that makes things seem worse than they might actually be.”

As a rule, farmers and ranchers have a very strong sense of self-reliance. It can be difficult to get them to admit they are struggling and even harder to get them to talk with a mental health professional. If they do agree, money will likely be raised as a concern, especially if they don’t have health insurance.

Another obstacle is simply finding care. According to the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services, more than half of all rural American counties do not have any psychologists, psychiatrists, or social workers. It can be tricky enough to get someone who is struggling to agree to visit a mental health professional, even without having to drive several hours to get there. Dellifield suggests starting with a local primary care physician in those cases.

These issues are amplified for agricultural workers, who are less likely to have health insurance, more likely to be living in poverty, and may not speak English. Whether these workers are seasonal or full-time, because they don’t own the farm and aren’t part of the family, they may feel they have even less control.

How to Help

If you believe someone is struggling, Dellifield says the most important thing is to show compassion and love. “If a person is dealing with diabetes or cancer, you try to show how much you care, so it’s important to treat mental health like that, too.”

She suggests asking the person to go for a walk or car ride to get a cup of coffee, because it’s easier to have serious conversations side-by-side rather than face-to-face. If you’re struggling for the right words, she says, “Just say, ‘I’m really concerned about you. I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself. Is there something bothering you or something you’d like to talk about?’”

If you don’t get a response that eases your concerns, she recommends sharing specifically what you’ve observed. “Say you’ve noticed that when you used to call to go to the movies, he or she wanted to go, but lately that’s not the case,” she says. “Say you miss the person and are worried about what’s happening.”

If you fear someone may be suicidal, Dellifield suggests being direct and simply asking if he or she is contemplating suicide. “If the person says yes, then ask if there’s a plan,” she says. “If the person has immediate access to carry out the plan, you should encourage him or her to go with you to the hospital. Don’t ever leave the person alone. If you feel he or she is in immediate danger, call 9-1-1 and let the rescue squad know about any plans. Always err on the side of safety.”

Since you don’t want the person you’re trying to help to feel cornered or threatened, Dellifield suggests giving options so he or she feels in control. “Ask if the person would like to call a hotline together or just go to the hospital. Also, ask which hospital he or she would like to go to,” she says.

Encourage employees to speak up if they or others are struggling, and be willing to talk with them or drive them to the hospital if needed. Keep in mind that if a worker doesn’t have access to transportation or have paid sick days, he or she will be even less likely to seek or accept help.

“If you provide insurance, make sure employees are aware of their behavioral health benefits, including options for counseling online or over the phone,” Dellifield says. “Help migrant workers connect with local agencies, and consider offering a day off without penalty if they need help.” She also suggests posting mental health resources alongside other safety materials, including those for non-English speakers.

Dellifield says you should respond to a mental health emergency just like you would a physical health emergency. “If someone was having a heart attack, you would take the person to the hospital and get help,” she says. “Treat potentially life-threatening mental health situations with the same sense of urgency.”

Just Be There

Talking isn’t the only way to help someone struggling with mental illness. “Sometimes self-help can do wonders,” Dellifield says. “If it’s a family member you’re concerned about, set a time for the entire family to go swimming or to take a walk or a bike ride. Say, ‘No excuses, we’re taking a break and going.’ ”

That is easier said than done for farmers and ranchers, especially during planting, calving, harvest, and other busy times, when they need a break the most. “That’s where the community and family can help,” she says. “Tell someone who’s struggling that you’re going to come and take care of things for the day so that person can get away.”

Dellifield says it’s important to understand that mental illness doesn’t always last forever. Just because someone is suicidal once, that doesn’t mean he or she will always be suicidal. “This can be short term. There are seasons in farmers’ lives that are more stressful and more intense than others,” she says. “With proper treatment, things can get better.”

Call, Text, or Click

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800/273-8255. For more mental health assistance hotlines, online resources, and links to additional articles from Successful Farming magazine, visit Agriculture.com/mentalhealth.

Editor's Note: While the CDC initially listed the statistics cited in this article as applying to those in the farming, fishing, and forestry industries, those classifications are now being questioned. The farming category may actually be comprised of agricultural workers, not necessarily farm and ranch owners and managers. The CDC says the authors of the study are “undertaking a reanalysis of the data and coding errors that may have occurred in certain occupational groups.”

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