Sharing breaks mental health stigma

Having the discussion can lead to more supports for people living in rural areas, says agriculture industry representative

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Michele Payn recalled what she calls one of the worst phone calls of her life.

It was her parents. They told her they were selling all of their dairy cows and that they had lost the entire farm to bankruptcy.

“That experience divided our family and it made me want to lay down and die with my dreams,” said Payn, speaking about mental health during the Country Elevator Conference in Indianapolis.

“I was never suicidal, but it certainly was a point in my life that was incredibly low,” said Payn, the principal with Cause Matters Corp., a company that looks to connect people with farming.

Payn shared her story, along with those of other farmers, during the conference. She encouraged producers and others to share their mental health struggles to break the stigma.

In doing so, she said she hoped it can lead to better support and mental health outcomes for people who live in rural areas.

“I’m here to tell you that it’s important to remind yourselves, your customers and your employees that their life and their humanity is more important than their farm,” she said.

“That can be a hard discussion to have, but it is really important for people who understand agriculture to have these discussions.”

She said mental health challenges among farmers and people who work in the industry are a problem, citing research that shows suicide rates are 50 percent higher in agriculture than in the general population.

Farmers are dealing with many stressors, she added, which include the weather, markets, trade disruptions and questions and demands from consumers.

These challenges can weigh down on the mental well-being of farmers. The problem, however, is that mental health is being brushed aside rather than addressed head-on.

“In agriculture, you either take care of it or you get rid of it. That’s the way we work. We fix our problems, we don’t talk about it and we get the work done,” Payn said.

“It’s a prideful thing for us, especially for men. You may think all this emotional stuff is a bunch of fufu, but you’re wrong.”

She said farmers should treat themselves like their soil and livestock. They tend to take really good care of those things, so why not treat themselves the same?

“How much of our time do we spend diagnosing disease in crops, soil and animals? A lot. It’s important,” Payn said. “Why don’t we spend the same amount of time on people? People are the most valuable asset in your business.”

The same can be said for employees, she added. If employers take care of them as humans, they will flourish, ultimately leading to more successful businesses.

“We can’t expect crops to grow in soil that has a health issue, so how can we expect people to grow when they have a mental health challenge?”

She said much of the language associated with mental health needs to change. Some people may associate it with being weak but, in reality, it takes a strong person to talk about their personal challenges.

If more people can talk about it openly, it can lead to more awareness of the issue and potentially more resources, she said.

It will take a cultural shift, she added, as well as changes to people’s habits.

Chronic stress is a leading factor affecting mental health. It could be caused by the weather, national trade decisions, market fluctuations or constant work.

People are working more than 100 hours per week, Payn said, leading them to be deprived of sleep. Nutritional needs may also suffer, whether that’s through over- or under-eating.

“The first solution is sleep and the second solution is nutrition,” she said. “I’ve had expert after expert saying working 100 hours a week may be necessary, but it’s not taking care of your health.”

She said, anecdotally, many farmers believe they were created as a farmer first and a human being second. That needs to change.

“The fear of losing that identity, of being a farmer, is what is terrifying farmers,” she said. “My argument is you were created as a human first and a farmer second, so how about we take care of the human first?”

Audience members noted that the fun in farming largely no longer exists. It’s gone from a way of life to big business, they said, adding that neighbours are competing with one another more often than helping each other out.

Some of the signs of people experiencing mental health challenges can include grouchy moods and conversations become short, where people no longer want to talk in a friendly manner.

They could also show unhealthy weight gain or loss. Their farms, as well, could look completely different, either being in disarray or extremely tidy, Payn said.

She told the story of a soybean farmer in Minnesota who died by suicide. His wife had said he wasn’t sleeping properly, wouldn’t eat or would overeat, and that he closed himself off.

“She will tell you the lack of sleep is the No. 1 contributor, as well as the lack of nutrition.”

During her presentation, Payn dispelled myths about suicide.

She said asking someone if they are going die by suicide won’t cause them to harm themselves. Instead, it will allow them to discuss what they are going through and can provide a window for them to access help.

Other ways people can help include reaching out to others by taking them out for a coffee or beer, or getting away from the farm or the task at hand, even if it’s for only for a short break from the stressors.

As well, showing people you care about them can go a long way, she added.

“I don’t have all the answers but when I look at research, one of the top things you can do is talk about it,” Payn said.

Many coping tools and other resources can be found at

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