Mental health — an important issue in rural America

May 4, 2019

From baling hay and planting to calving and harvesting, farming is hard physical labor from sunup to sundown. Farmers are strong and very independent, but what many don’t realize is how emotionally difficult farming can be — dealing with devastating floods or drought, feeding an expanding global population, falling commodity prices, meeting new strict emissions requirements, producing more food on fewer acres and global trade policies, just to name a few.

Managing a working farm can lead to depression, anxiety, marital strife, financial ruin and even addiction. Farming has one of the highest workplace suicide rates of any occupation in the U.S., according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Kankakee County Farm Bureau member and Manteno farmer Greg St. Aubin is helping bring awareness to mental health as an important issue in rural America.

As a part of the Illinois Farm Bureau’s “Cropwatchers 2.0” program, St. Aubin regularly contributes videos about his farm on the Farm Bureau’s FarmWeekNow.com website.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and St. Aubin discusses the importance of mental health in his most recent video.

“I had an issue 15 years ago where I had deep anxiety and depression. It was overwhelming to me, and there wasn’t a lot of understanding out there,” St. Aubin said.

“It wasn’t until I feared for my own life and safety that I sought help. It took me being dragged to a doctor to get help,” said St. Aubin, who didn’t seek treatment until he was nearly nonfunctioning.

It was his mother, who previously worked at Manteno State Hospital and Bourbonnais Terrace, who recognized that her son needed help and encouraged him to see a doctor. A farmer and friend of St. Aubin’s, who had struggled with depression, also encouraged him to seek help.

“After I sought help, I realized why didn’t I do this sooner,” St. Aubin said. “So many suffer from anxiety and depression, and you just cope with it. You don’t know anything else. There is still such a huge stigma with mental illness.”

Stress is normal, especially for farmers who deal with unpredictable weather and markets. However, unmanaged stress can cause more serious issues.

“Farmers extend a great deal of energy caring for their land, livestock, machinery and family. As good as agricultural producers are in caring for others, they are not always as careful in taking care of themselves. Mental health is just as vital as physical safety in the farming profession,” Kankakee County Farm Bureau manager Chad Miller said.

Keith Mussman, a Grant Park farmer, Kankakee County Farm Bureau president and Iroquois Mental Health Center board member said, “There is always extreme stress farmers deal with — markets, weather, yields and bugs. And, for the most part, we work by ourselves. Farmers let our pride get in the way, and we don’t like to ask for help. But now, there is much more conversation about the issue.”

“Most farmers work alone and carry a lot on their shoulders,” St. Aubin said. “There are times farmers feel overwhelmed. I’m an advocate for making sure farmers’ physical and mental health is part of how we operate on the farm. When we think about health, we think about how overweight we are or if our heart is good. But mental health is just as important.”

Miller noted that it’s important for farmers to identify their source of stress and recognize the warning signs.

“Find healthy ways to manage stress such as exercising or talking with friends or family. Make sure to take care of yourself by eating right, staying hydrated with water and getting enough sleep. Calling upon the farming community — friends, neighbors or clergy — makes a difference in managing stressful situations and crisis,” Miller said.

“Mental health issues can cause great grief on your family and business. If you feel inadequate in any way, don’t be afraid to reach out,” St. Aubin said.

A lack of mental resources in rural communities can be a challenge.

“There are more and more places to contact for help,” said Mussman, who pointed out that locally, the Iroquois Mental Health Center in Watseka also has satellite locations in Cissna Park, Hoopeston, Milford and opening soon in Kankakee. Other service providers, the Resolve Center in Manteno and the Helen Wheeler Center in Kankakee, as well as local hospitals and family doctors also can help.

“I want to be an advocate for the farming community,” St. Aubin said. “I hope that farmers will learn more about the issue, and I hope that the videos will help other farmers personally or enable them to recognize warning signs in someone else. When you make the decision to seek help, things will be 10 times better for you.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Hotline, 800-273-TALK or dial 911.

To view the video, use the QR code in the article, visit https://farmweeknow.com/story-cropwatchers-20-big-picture-spring-5-187689 or visit the Kankakee County Farm Bureau’s Facebook page.