New York Post
Why depression and suicide are rampant among American farmers
By Salena Zito December 16, 2017
Retired physician Jeffrey Menn
NORWALK, WIS. — Not long ago, a local farmer here plunged into a depression so intense that he could barely muster the strength to leave his bed.
The 40-something father of eight went dark for weeks, despite the enormous amount of daily work needed to keep his family farm going.
“If you are running a small farm, you still have to get up and milk the cows. You got to go put the crops in. There are demands that nature doesn’t let you forget,” explained Jeffrey Menn, a farmer and doctor who was familiar with his friend’s crisis. “His massive depression immobilized him. He couldn’t even get out of bed for two or three weeks. Young guy, but he got himself worked into a hole.
“It’s his wife who’s taken over the operation, and she has, let me tell you. She’s a force of nature. This woman, she gets things done. You know, eight kids, mountain of debt, but she’s out there busting her butt to make things happen.”
It could have been worse for his friend, said Menn. “Depression can lead to suicide. He’s recovered from the deeper parts but in terms of the leadership in the family, that’s now been transferred to his wife.”
A retired physician, Menn is known locally as the “cowboy doctor” for his love of riding horses and western attire. In 37 years of practice, he has become all too familiar with the impact that depression and suicide have had on the lives of farmers and their families in the western counties of Wisconsin, where he works full-time at the Neighborhood Family Clinic.
He is also a farmer.
Menn sees the crippling impact of depression several times a week at the clinic. The first thing he does is make sure visitors are getting counseling “and then we utilize medication like SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) . . . which makes it harder for the patient to get to the darkest point of depression,” he said.
When he heard about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in 2016, which showed farmers take their lives more often than people in any other occupation in this country, including the military, he was not surprised. “There is particularly a lot of depression in rural society. It happens for a lot of different reasons. A lot of it is our roller-coaster economics. People outside of farming, I think, understand that farming is hard work. What they don’t understand is the depth of the lows that can hit you at any one time, with just one small problem that can lead to hundreds of little problems.
“I just had the discussion today with my son-in-law,” he explained. “We sold feeder steers. We missed by about 50 pounds what we were hoping to get. Well, that was about another $15,000 worth of income we’re not going to have. That’s a big deal, because the margins are so tough.”
His brother, who works on the ranch and keeps the books, told him that their diverse operation of crops and livestock should bring in enough money to keep the 3,500-acre ranch going next year. “You know, pay taxes, make sure you have money to pay people, pay for your seed, your fertilizer. And hope to hell no big catastrophes hit you in the side of the head.”
The 2016 CDC study of approximately 40,000 suicides reported in the US in 2012 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — showed that the rate for agriculture workers is 84.5 per 100,000. The next occupation most at risk were construction, extraction, installation, maintenance and repair workers who had a suicide rate hovering around the 50 per 100,000 mark. Meanwhile, the suicide rate among American male veterans is 37 per 100,000, according to a 2016 study by the Veterans Affairs department.
The CDC research suggested that farmers’ exposure to pesticides might affect their neurological system and contribute to depressive symptoms, but for those in the Driftless area of Wisconsin, where Menn has his ranch, organic farming is thriving.
“So that is not a factor,” he said. But constant pressure of financial ruin and a cultural mindset that you should tough something out rather than seek mental-health treatment all contribute to the problem.
Societal changes, leading to a sense of isolation, are also to blame. It used to be that people knew their neighbors and went to church together while their kids attended the same schools.
“That sense of community — physically, spiritually and culturally — has sort of gone out the door,” Menn said.
All across rural America picturesque farms dot our landscape. These are the people who essentially provide the feasts that we will indulge in this Christmas season. The good news is that — like Menn — farmers still love what they do and love being part of this life.
“There’s just something great about seeing the land, seeing it as it is now in the brown and white season. Then it comes to life, and life just comes out of what looks like dead ground. It’s always amazing.”
As we enjoy the fruits of farmers’ labor in the coming days, we should remember their hard work. And never forget their sacrifice.