How Training Can Prevent Farmer Suicide
It’s no secret the agricultural industry is experiencing turmoil right now, but, according to one local farmer, we might be facing a farm crisis unlike any we’ve seen before.
Mike Deahr farms in Muscatine County and, though he boasts 32,000 head, he’s still considered in just the 20th percentile of hog operations. He also grows corn and soybeans. Deahr didn’t start farming until he was 30-years-old, right in the middle of the Farm Crisis of the 1980’s.
“I saved my money and eventually had enough money to buy something that someone else lost,” he said.
Though Deahr has been successful, he knows the high cost of living this passion. More than 30 years ago, Deahr’s brother, George, died by suicide.
“It’s a high-risk business,” said Deahr. However, his brother’s death motivated him to ensure others have the support his brother lacked. Social isolation is a major determinant of suicide risk and farming can be a very lonely profession. “Many farmers stay involved in bigger picture things. Others go to the local diner to catch up on gossip. There’s quite a network in the business of acquaintances that we never had in the past. The social isolation is there if you allow it to be, but each individual handles it a different way.”
In addition to social isolation, financial stressors are just a fact of life in farming. Financial stressors are growing amongst farmers and, as Deahr stated, they are only going to get worse.
“Most days the financial stress is in the background,” he said. “But we are one newsbyte away from a heavy stressor at all times these days. The geopolitical environment affects our livelihood and we have no control over it. Ag is probably the first geopolitical football in trade disputes and will remain that way, hence the reason for farm programs. Most of us just want the government to stay out of our business, but it’s always inevitably in it. Trump taxes their goods, China responded with ag. It put my whole business in a tailspin. For us, swine started over a year ago with the tariffs. The markets collapsed in July of 2018. It was stressful. It hardened me to this run of tough times ahead.”
The geopolitical landscape isn’t the only external and uncontrollable threat in agriculture. Weather and climate change can turn a good year bad overnight. Last year’s polar vortex increased propane bills up to three times. Deahr said they had trouble getting manure on the fields. Then the rain started and planting happened much later than usual in the spring. Deahr said it was “history setting-type weather.”
Knowing the stress that he and his family have gone through in the past couple of years, Deahr understands that farmers need to support each other. However, most farmers don’t have all of the skills they need to ensure that someone’s mental health isn’t being pushed to its limit.
“I’ve tried counseling in periods of stress to better understand myself but counselors are ill-prepared to deal with ag subjects,” he explained. “We worry about so much: getting the next generation started, their work ethic, the transfer of responsibilities. The older generation has to figure all that out.”
Deahr said it is critical for people who work in the ag industry or with those who work in the ag industry to have the skills to be able to recognize when someone needs help and to provide the stress intervention necessary to help them through it.
“If someone had these tools, they could help farmers who are stressed digest everything happening and figure it out,” he said.
Unfortunately, there are barriers to getting this kind of help. Lots of them. Men in rural areas are significantly more likely to die by suicide than any other demographic. The lack of resources in rural areas and stigma are the most common reasons.
“It’s like talking about kissing your sister,” Deahr laughed. “You just don’t do it. You don’t talk about depression. Some of us sense it, though. I shut my planter off a few weeks ago and knew an individual who needed help. I went and worked some ground for him. A lot of us do things like that. I knew I’d be ok, but he needed the help.”
Deahr said that sometimes it’s easier to do something physical as an act of support than to ask someone how they’re feeling. However, having a direct conversation can be one of the most powerful tools in helping to prevent suicide.
“Sometimes I can tell something is going on, so I just keep talking to them and checking in to show them I care,” he said. “When you talk to people, you learn. I used to do sales and I learned early how to read people. But listening is one thing. Giving feedback is dangerous. You have to be good at asking questions.”
But how do you know what questions to ask?
The things Deahr seems to know inherently are the things CommUnity Crisis Intervention staff can teach. Beginning in fiscal year 2019, CommUnity staff began recognizing that there is a great need for mental health services that target farmers and rural communities. However, we can’t be everywhere at once. So we decided to find a way that we could reach as many people with our services as possible and began providing training in rural communities across the state. In FY19, nearly 800 individuals in rural communities across Eastern Iowa received either Question Persuade Refer (QPR) Gatekeeper training, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), or Trauma Informed Care training from CommUnity staff. Through these trainings, regular people gain the skills to be able to recognize when someone is having thoughts of suicide or another mental health crisis and have a conversation at varying levels to help them access resources. Whether it’s just asking the question, “Are you all right?” or actually de-escalating a suicidal crisis, QPR or ASIST can help anyone learn the skills they need to help save lives right in their community.
“This stuff is so personal,” Deahr reminds us.
Additionally, the Iowa Concern farmer helpline is available 24/7/365 through phone and text at 1-800-447-1985 or chat at extension.iastate.edu/iowaconcern. The helpline, run by Iowa State University Extension, has trained mental health counselors during the day who also understand issues facing the ag industry. They are able to help answer financial questions, they understand the lingo, and they can communicate in a way that farmers are comfortable and feel they’re being heard. Overnights and weekends, CommUnity staff and volunteers respond to the helpline.
If you are interested in attending an ASIST, QPR, or Trauma Informed Care training, or if you would like to host a training in your area, visit www.builtbycommunity.org/training or contact Julia Erickson at Julia.firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.