A John Deere Publication
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Lethargy and withdrawal from social situations may indicate depression, which can be a chronic disease.

Agriculture, Education   February 01, 2024

Out of the Darkness

The stress of dealing with unpredictable weather, crops or animals on the farm, coupled with financial worries, physical and social isolation, and an often chronic work/life imbalance can crank up into panic or unravel into depression.

Both are a body's natural reactions to extraordinary stress, and they are both treatable.

Country singer and former ranch hand Jason DeShaw of Plentywood, Montana, says he was relieved when his waves of euphoria and depression were diagnosed as bi-polar disorder in 2010. DeShaw began treatment and became a passionate advocate for mental health—increasingly called behavioral health—especially in rural communities, where many cases go unrecognized and untreated.

"Once I got the diagnosis, it was kind of freeing to know there was a name for it," DeShaw told a crowd in a TEDx talk in Helena, Montana.

DeShaw described the depression that follows his energy surges.

"Depression, for me, is the great darkness, this black abyss in which happiness and hope seldom exist," he explained to the audience. "And it's every bit as physical as it is mental. I can feel the weight of depression crushing down on me. I can feel it in my bones.

"It's easy for me to forget that there's hope when I'm in such pain," DeShaw added, noting that the pain is even worse than the time that he ended up in the hospital with a burst appendix.

DeShaw said that being hospitalized for the chemical imbalance that causes bi-polar disorder is—quite unfairly—treated differently than being hospitalized for any other type of disease.

"The brain is just another organ in the body, just like the heart," DeShaw said. "But if someone has a heart attack, people don't turn their back on them, or whisper in hushed tones about them being weak. No, they probably bring 'em flowers. But I ain't never got a balloon or a casserole with mental illness. Which is OK. But the point I'm trying to make is that we cannot close the door on people because their illness occurs in a different part of their body."

Even workaday stress or loss can trigger depression. Mike Rosmann, a farmer and psychologist in Harlan, Iowa, says persistent stress can result in high levels of cortisol and reduced production of beneficial hormones like seratonin, norephinephrine, dopamine, and oxitocin.

Chemical depressants can come from outside the body, too. Rosmann points to research that suggests a possible link between depression and insecticides that interfere with neural pathways. And, of course, alcohol and drugs can tip the scales toward depression or amplify depression into suicidal thoughts.

Many people identify so deeply as farmers that any threat to their ability to farm can have deadly consequences, notes psychologist Val Farmer of Wildwood, Missouri.

"If the core of their identity is pride in being a farmer and their personal pride in the community, and their goal is to pass on the family farm and maintain their reputation as an outstanding person and an outstanding farmer, the idea of failure or defeat is a life-threatening situation," he says.

When personal identity, community standing, and physical limitations or business problems get tangled together, it's vital to seek another perspective to prevent problems on the farm from spiraling toward anxiety, depression, or even suicide.

Seeking expertise to solve problems is commonplace on the farm—except when it comes to finding help for depression, notes Bob Fetsch, professor emeritus at Colorado State University.

"We get professional help when we can't figure out the computer system in our tractor," he says. "When my dad and brother have a cow who's been laboring 12 hours to deliver a calf, they do all they can to assist her to deliver that calf. When they fail, they call a professional: a veterinarian.

"Are you and I not worth more than a mother cow?" Fetsch asks. "When we've done all we can, isn't it time to call a professional?"

Saskatchewan farmer Matt Kelly says his life changed when he called a hotline for people in crisis to address his anxiety attacks. That's why he and his wife Lesley have made it their mission to reduce the stigma around behavioral health, sharing their stories and helping create domore.ag, an online resource and advocacy group for the rural community.

"I've worked in the ag sector. I've worked in the oil sector. I think I'm fairly tough. But this isn't about being weak or anything," Kelly says as he talks about stigma. "Sometimes you just need to talk to somebody to get a different perspective.

"You can only lean on your family members so much, and need to reach out to someone who has no skin in the game," he adds. "I had to ask for help. I didn't understand what was going on.

"It was common sense," Kelly recalls. "You could tell they weren't judging you. Just talking."

Kelly learned tactics like exercise, journaling, and communication to help reduce his anxiety. He and his in-laws conduct daily check-ins that he says improve safety and employee relations, too.

In Missouri, Farmer points out that connecting with other people, whether they're friends, loved ones, doctors, clergy, therapists, or bankers, can break the spiral of depression. Feelings of helplessness that could lead people to suicidal plans can be replaced by problem-solving instincts.

"Their depression kind of melts away when they're taking action," Farmer observes.

The time to fight depression starts right now, says Farmer, no matter how you feel at the moment. Start by strengthening relationships with your spouse and friends, and building an identity, hobbies, and a fuller life beyond the farm.

"Join the choir at church," he suggests. "Do things on Sunday. Start having a normal lifestyle. If they live their life that way, when there's a setback, it's not everything—it's just one thing, and they know there's more to life than that single thing."

Spouses and friends are the first line of defense. It's important to recognize the symptoms of depression or suicide risk.

Isolation from social life—like skipping lunch with friends or no longer going to church—can be a warning sign. So can a decline in personal appearance or in the care of livestock or the farm.

Changes in eating or sleeping patterns, whether a shift to too much or too little, can also signal depression. Perfectionism or lashing out at others can be a sign, as can comments about worry, self-blame, lack of control, getting even, calling it quits, or what to do "if something happens."

Fetsch emphasizes the importance of really listening to people—respectfully, without judgment.

"If they give you a clue, they're saying, 'help me,'" he says. "Don't deny it and say, 'don't do something stupid.' Listen to their story and, especially if they are suicidal, get them to a family physician, emergency room, or behavioral health therapist."

Loved ones and friends are vital in part because rural resources for behavioral health are so short.

In Canada, domore.ag lists crisis hotlines in each province and connects to AgTalk, a peer network. In the U.S., several states have hotlines—search online, ask your doctor or pastor, or check with your state Extension service. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-(800)273-TALK also provides 24/7 coverage across the country. ‡

Editor's note: A longer version of this article appeared in the November 2018 issue of The Furrow. We thought it was important to include it in this month's special issue.

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