An Open Letter to the Ag Community on Mental Health

A Farmer's Plea: Speak the Truth About Mental Health

Nathan Brown urges everyone in the ag community to break the stigma surrounding mental health. (Joel Reichenberger)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Nathan Brown operates a diversified crops and livestock farm with his wife and family near Hillsboro, Ohio. He speaks frequently about mental health and created a Facebook community called Farmer to Farmer Peer Support to further the discussion about and to advocate for rural issues.

The following is his open letter to the ag community:

Last year, I attended the funeral of a farmer friend who decided this world was too much, that his family would be better off without him. He decided to die by suicide.

Why didn't he ask for help? Why didn't he just admit he was broken and try to get fixed?

Why? Why? Why?

I can't seem to stop asking, "Why?"

A search of "farming" on social media yields some of the most beautiful and genuine scenes from across America. A newborn lamb, perfectly straight rows of corn, cattle grazing and many harvest sunsets will fill your screen.

The lifestyle is romanticized by so many -- from small children to happy television shows. And, who doesn't appreciate growing something with their own hands, tending to the land passed down from generation to generation, feeding, fueling and clothing every person in this great country?

But, there's an ugly truth behind those pretty pictures. Agriculture often has a dark side that many agriculturalists are not willing to share. For every picture that shows something new and wonderful, there are often an equal number of moments filled with disappointment, doubt, despair, chaos, uncertainty and anxiety that farmers sometimes deal with daily. Farming isn't easy -- it just isn't and never has been.

So why now? Why are so many farmers in dark places? Weather, world unrest, production problems -- farmers face so many forces beyond their control. Even balancing family and family life can put a strain on mental health. We work long hours, take on risk no other industry would think of and do it all on land that our families have worked for generations.

What possibly could go wrong?

Today's farming operations are high-risk, high-reward businesses. Producers have been pushing production to the limits and adding volume to make up for what seem to be ever-shrinking margins. Technology has allowed producers to achieve production gains and reduce the physical toll of the vocation, yet the toll on farmers' mental health seems to have increased.

Talking about things that affect one's mind is taboo in our society, so much so that we are watching our friends and neighbors decide they would rather take their own lives than seek the help they so desperately need.

I, for one, am done with it.

As I was consulting a mental health advocate after my friend's suicide, he asked me, "Why that guy? Why didn't we help him?" We talk about getting help with mental health more than ever before, and several of us have stepped up to share our own mental health struggles. How could this still happen despite efforts to prevent it?

Those are tough questions, and the answers to those "whys" are even tougher.

What I know is we must keep talking, sharing and pushing for more resources in our communities to break down the stigma surrounding mental health. We need people to get trained in mental health first aid, particularly in the agriculture industry. Knowing what to say or what to look for could help save a life. In rural America, mental health resources are some of the most desperately needed medical services, yet in most areas, they are limited or simply nonexistent.

We must push for more funding and boots on the ground to save lives.

And, as farmers, we must own up to the problem. If an implement is broken on the farm, we fix it. Why are we reluctant to do that for the most important asset to the farming operation?

If you are struggling, take the time to take care of yourself. It's OK to take an afternoon off to heal your mind and thoughts.

Take up exercise and eat a healthy diet -- those two things lighten my spirits when I am down. Do something you enjoy that will ease your thoughts.

If you feel you are in a spot that you can't climb out of, seek professional help. Your family doctor can refer you to that specific mental health professional who can help you.

Important to my mental health is a core group of friends who I check on, and they check on me when times are rough. You're not alone in your trials, my friends. Not by a long shot.

Depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues are real in agriculture. It is easy to get lost in one's thoughts, especially if you are looking through the lens of social media or worried about how others perceive you.

There is help available, we just need to break this stigma and ask for it. Start by admitting to yourself that you are hurting, and remember that your life and mental health are more important than anything or any farm, because you are worth more than any building or piece of land.


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