Depression and Anxiety Take Ultimate Toll
Katie Lyons grew up on an Illinois farm and experienced first-hand how depression can change farm families.
“When I was younger, he was always out playing with us in the yard having fun,” Lyons says of her father, David Hulsizer. “We used to go swimming and do a lot of different activities. I try to hold those memories close because that’s all I have left.”
In 2013, the unthinkable changed their family forever when Lyons’ father died by suicide at 51. She says her dad battled depression and anxiety for years, but when anyone would try to address it, he shut down.
“There’s a huge stigma around mental health. We think it’s a weakness or something is wrong with us, but [mental illness] is a true medical condition,” Lyons says. ”Sometimes it’s hard to admit we need help. There are resources out there. I don’t want this to happen to another farm family.”
Mental Stress Causes Physical Pain
A baseball flies to the back of the batting cage as Indiana farmer Greg Doms, 48, readies another pitch. For a few minutes, the stress of farming and his off-farm job takes a back seat to the simple joy of hitting baseballs.
This year, spending a few precious moments, bat in hand, has seemed nearly cathartic.
“I don’t know if I’m visualizing Mother Nature on the face of that ball or what,” Doms laughs.
His seasonal nemesis nearly put him in the ground his family has been tending for four generations. In June, amid the relentless rains Doms ended up in the ER.
“I thought I was having a heart attack,” Doms says. “I wasn’t, thank goodness, but it was so much stress mounting up.”
For several weeks, doctors searched in vain for the culprit. Today the best guess as to what caused his multiple ailments is stress from farming.
Now, thanks to a little honesty, dry weather and a few baseballs, Doms is back on his game.
“We live by the F’s,” Doms says. “It goes faith, family, friends, farming and maybe a little fun.”
The Pressure To Succeed Erodes Confidence
The most difficult endeavor Chris Adams has faced in his nine years of full-time farming is the mental capacity and confidence the profession requires. As a child coming into a successful empire, it might seem like a road paved in gold, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
”You don’t know whether you can keep the family business going or if you’ll be the generation that fails,“ says Adams, 32. ”I really feel for the younger producers who are in this position, and nobody ever talks about it.
While Adams has battled mild depression and confidence issues for most of his life, the mental strain deepened when he transitioned to the farm.
”I felt shadowed by the success of my dad, and I could not picture a scenario where I could add something to the farm,“ he says. ”Without my wife and parents, I would never have even diagnosed myself with depression or even thought I could feel success.”
Through counselor visits and support from his family, Adams has learned to manage the day-to-day stress of running a large farm operation, overcome self-doubt and actually feel the success he‘s added to the farm.
Loss of a Loved One Deepens Family’s Resolve
Four years ago, John Baillie died from a heart event at the age of 71.
“Our dad was hauling grain in the semi that day. Mom advised him not to drive after his lunch break [because he wasn’t feeling well],” says daughter Johneen Davis. "Basically, Dad had always told us he would work until the day he died because he loved farming.”
Despite the shock and grief, the family rallied to keep Terra Bona Farms going. Today Davis with husband, Doug; mom, Glenda; sister, Suzanne; and brother-in-law, Troy, run the 975-acre row-crop operation near Piper City, Ill.
“Working together on the farm has brought us closer together, true family stewardship,” Davis says. “We have made changes the past few years to be safer, eat healthier and take better care of each other as we balance regular jobs in addition to growing the farm legacy.”
Caregivers Must Care for Themselves
Farmers and ranchers have been on a stressful and emotional roller coaster ride in 2019 — and really the past few years. Relentless weather. Volatile markets. Trade wars. Drama in Washington. Machinery breakdowns. Tough financial decisions. Information overload. Family quarrels. These are serious issues that need attention, an understanding team, expert advisers and a proactive plan to deal with the stress.
While mental health has many stigmas, agriculture is unique, says Adrienne DeSutter, a farm wife who specializes in behavioral health, specifically agriculture wellness.
“Farmers are some of the best caregivers in the world,” DeSutter says. “They care for crops, the land and their animals, but they’re not always the best caregivers of themselves.”
As naturally selfless, ambitious individuals, farmers rarely rely on others to fix something wrong, which makes it hard to reach out when they need help with issues such as depression, DeSutter adds.
“I know I am not the only person to go through this kind of mental stress,” says North Dakota farmer Chris Adams. “I think it is running rampant in all facets of business. However, I think it is far more dangerous in the ag world because traditionally farmers are not much for talking, let alone talking about feelings to someone else.”
Know The Signs
Stress affects our body, mind and actions, explains Glennis McClure, University of Nebraska Extension farm and ranch management analyst. Stress symptoms can surface in the form of moodiness, anxiety, chest pain, forgetfulness, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, increased use of alcohol or withdrawal from others.
In David Hulsizer’s case, he became detached. “He’d taken himself out of a lot of different organizations. He didn’t do a lot of extracurricular activities. It was basically go to work, come home and go to bed type activities,” recalls Katie Lyons, his daughter.
DeSutter says those signs are different person-to-person.
“Look for something that has changed or multiple things that have changed,” she says. ”At the farm, you might find the livestock is being cared for less or see things looking a little more rundown than normal.”
If any of these signs are starting to creep into the picture, DeSutter says the first step is to ask your primary care physician for help. The doctor can then refer you on to a specialist.
“In many rural areas, a high percentage of visits to family physicians are due to stress-related illnesses,” says Brandy VanDeWalle, University of Nebraska Extension educator.
For Greg Doms, stress was the culprit of multiple health issues. As a seed-corn grower, his payments are based on how his crops stack up against the neighbor. Added on top, Doms and his wife, Jenny, both have day jobs.
“It makes us weekend warriors,” Doms says. “We farm after work, we farm on the weekends, and we push that to the limit in good weather, and with bad weather it just digs that hole deeper.”
It isn’t uncommon, during planting, for Doms to work all day, come home, farm until 2 a.m. and then head back to work at 7.
Remember You Matter
As the weight of challenges in agriculture get heavier, DeSutter has one plea: Remember you matter.
“If you feel like depression is overwhelming you and you feel that sense of worthlessness and hopelessness, I need you to know your worth is not measured by the markets,” she says. “It’s not measured by your farm. You are a valuable person who needs some help. Talk to anyone who will listen.”
After Lyons' dad died, her family made tough decisions. They sold portions of the farm so it was more manageable for their family to keep farming.
Knowing when it’s time to walk away is what helps keep Lyons and her family going, as well as remembering to enjoy the little things in life.
If you need immediate help, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
To learn the signs of suicidal risk and find more resources to help you manage mental and physical stress, visit www.AgWeb.com/rural-health