I’m glad mental health presentations at agriculture conferences are becoming more common. Learning to recognize debilitating stress, coping strategies and when to see a professional are crucial. But during one session in particular, I remember audience members expressing discomfort when the speaker mentioned suicide.  

While I understand talking about suicide is uncomfortable, change doesn’t come from comfort.

That’s why in 2020, I participated virtually in Question. Persuade. Refer., commonly known as QPR. This training helps you identify the signs someone is in a severe mental health crisis and get them help.

I’ll always remember when the presenter asked each of us to say out loud, “Are you contemplating suicide?” I sat in my makeshift, pandemic home office and spoke those words into the empty room—and my palms were sweating. Then, I asked it again to no one.

Because if that moment of crisis ever comes, I don’t want silence to be my default. I want to open myself up to hearing the hard. I want to have the courage to be direct and fully understand if someone is heading down an irreversible path.

Maybe you’ve heard asking a question like this puts suicidal ideation into someone’s head. Research actually shows the opposite effect; it allows space for an individual to talk about what’s going on and may reduce the risk of suicide.

In agriculture, we’re making strides in breaking the mental health stigma, but we’re not there yet. A recent survey showed more than 40% of Iowa farmers may be reluctant to seek help if they were experiencing a mental health challenge.

However, many adults think about suicide. Suicide is the leading cause of death in the United States, and farmers die by suicide at a higher rate than people in other professions. So, it’s important to turn toward someone in crisis and provide intervention.

When someone is withdrawing from family, expressing feelings of hopelessness, displaying dramatic mood changes, giving away prized possessions or continually making statements like, “What’s the point of going on? I’m so tired of it all,”— we cannot hold onto silence anymore.

Help is available—even for those living in rural communities removed from larger populations. While people in the farming community often work alone, that doesn’t mean they have to go at it alone when it comes to getting the support they need.  

Iowa farm families have access to free, ongoing counseling and life management services through the Farm Family Wellness Alliance. Iowa Farm Bureau has also aggregated a list of mental health resources. If you’re interested in becoming a better mental health “responder,” I’d  highly recommend taking advantage of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s online offerings of QPR or Mental Health First Aid.

We can’t pay lip service to mental health if we’re serious about change. We have to show up with courage and be willing to say, “I care about you, and I don’t think you’re OK.” And if the time comes, we’ll take a breath, rub our sweaty palms together and use the big “S” word. Discomfort can take a backseat when a life is on the line.

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