Steve Esser As the harvest season starts, we as ag bankers are trusted financial advisor,s and it is in this capacity that we spend the majority of our time. With the financial stress that our producers are experiencing it may another role that we may be called upon during and after harvest. That role could be confident and advocate for suicide prevention.

Farmers are used to facing tough times, starting with the Great Depression and continuing off and on. Through the decades that followed farmer suicides didn’t get much attention. That changed with the 1980s farm crisis. Since then, the suicide rate for male farmers has remained very high. In fact, it is nearly two times that of the general population, meaning it is higher than any other profession in the United States. 

Here are the main causes of depression leading to suicide:

  • Addiction. The strong link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression is well-documented, and self-medication—whether with alcohol or drugs—can be a coping mechanism for struggling farmers. Loneliness, isolation, and the stress of juggling a farm, family, and finances also contribute to depression and anxiety. 
  • Debt. When a farm struggles because of prices, weather, family crises, or overall poor financial management, hopelessness or panic can set in, resulting in increased physical and emotional illness.
  • Divorce. Farmers and their families have to sustain land, livestock, expensive equipment, and finances, all while balancing the work with home life. During parts of the year, farming is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week job. These demanding conditions can make agricultural occupations particularly difficult and can take a toll on marriages. The psychological impact of divorce can also lead to depression and suicidal thoughts. 
  • Injury or illness. Agriculture is hard physical labor, so it’s not uncommon for farmers to injure themselves or skip a doctor’s appointment because it’s harvest time. Unfortunately, those injuries and illnesses can stack up until they become incapacitating or impossible to ignore, leading to lost time on the farm, financial burden, and then to depression and anxiety.

You may be asking, What can I do?. The first line of defense is being able to recognize some of the signs of depression. They include any or all of the following:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Lack of interest in activities or work
  • Expressions or feelings of worthlessness
  • Nausea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Clammy skin

Identifying the signs is only part of the battle. There is a stigma that is associated with any kind of mental disorder. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences a mental disorder within any given year according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Yet, the misconceptions, myths, and cultural taboos associated with mental illness may be the most significant barriers that keep people with mental disorders from seeking and receiving treatment in rural areas.

Factors that may influence farmers to avoid seeking care may include:

  • Lack of understanding and knowledge of mental illness, sometimes even among healthcare staff
  • Prejudice or stigma towards people with mental health disorders, often based on fear and unease
  • Secrecy about mental illness in the community and general hesitancy to seek care
  • Perception of a lack of confidentiality and privacy in small towns with closely tied social networks

While there are drawbacks to small communities when it comes to mental health, there are positives as well. This is where we and the community can help. The close-knit nature of our communities also means that we and our neighbors are more likely to rally around one other and provide community support in times of need. This strong support group can help facilitate a person's success in treatment and also help support the family's efforts in attending to the person in need. Since we are not mental health experts, here are some resources to help us and our customers if needed:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). Trained crisis workers are available to talk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  • For general information on mental health and to locate treatment services in your area, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA also has a Behavioral Health Treatment Locator on its website that can be searched by location.
  • Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA): HRSA works to improve access to health care. The website has information on finding affordable healthcare, including health centers that offer care on a sliding fee scale.
  • Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS): CMS has information on the website about benefits and eligibility for these programs and how to enroll.
  • The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus website also has lists of directories and organizations that can help in identifying a health practitioner.
  • Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help: This website from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers resources to help answer questions about insurance coverage for mental health care.
  • Practitioner lists in health care plans can provide mental health professionals that participate in your plan.

We as ag bankers are asked to wear many hats. When we visit with customers during these difficult times please keep in mind that we may be asked verbally and non-verbally to help more than just their financial well-being. 

Esser is vice president, Peoples State Bank, Prairie du Chien