Coping with pressures of farm life: economic woes prompt suicide concerns

Ray Mueller
During four of the past five years, the suicide rates in six Wisconsin counties were higher than for the entire state of Wisconsin, which also has a higher rate than the United States as a whole.

KIEL - In 2017, in Wisconsin, 915 suicides were officially recorded — the highest in many years. Such alarming statistics were part of the reason Extension Service offices in six highly affected counties convened a meeting titled “Supporting Farmers During Challenging Times” that attracted about 125 to the Millhome Supper Club.

The “Coping with the Pressures of Farm Life” segment of the program was designed to promote positive mental health and prevent suicide in the agriculture community. It was presented by CSI of Fond du Lac County destination zero coordinator Tammi Kohlman and the county's Extension Service family living educator Shelley Tidemann.

High area rates

During four of the past five years, which coincided with a severe downturn in most sectors of the agricultural economy, the suicide rates in six area Wisconsin counties  — Calumet, Manitowoc, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan, Ozaukee, and Washington — were higher than for the entire state of Wisconsin, which also has a higher rate than the United States as a whole, Kohlman reported. 

In the six area counties, the suicide rate for males age 45 to 64 during the past five years was 29.3 per 100,000 in population compared to 15.2 for the entire population, Kohlman pointed out. Nearly four times as many men as women die by suicide but many more, including women, attempt or think about suicide than who die by it, she added.

RELATED: Suicide prevention project aims to help distressed farmers

Although the statistics show that suicide rates are higher in rural populations, Kohlman explained that the data is not precise enough to count the number of active farmers in the totals. In addition, it's not always known if deaths in accidents or by drug overdose are suicide or not, she observed.

High risk for farmers

Farmers are at higher risk for the potential of suicide than the overall population because of their lack of control over weather, commodity prices, production input costs, and government regulations and policies, Kohlman stated. Those factors are often exacerbated by farmers' self reliant nature, their reluctance to seek help, their limited access to mental health services, the stigma often attached to anyone seeking such services, and their access to lethal means, she indicated.

Tammi Kohlman, MPH, CSW is a CSI Destination Zero Coordinator.

The common outward signs of an on-farm problem include declines in the appearance of the farmstead and care of livestock, changes in routine and demeanor, and increases in illness, farm accidents, and stress in children, Kohlman remarked.

While stress is good in some respects, an excess or the wrong kind of it leads to an inability to cope with situations, Kohlman suggested. Although farmers see themselves as “independent and fixers, they can face added pressures” that are more than they can handle, she said.

Iceberg of health

“Don't expect everyone to be perfect” but at least expect a person “to be living with meaning and purpose,” Tidemann advised. A native of a family farm in South Dakota, she prefers an “iceberg of health” model of which “you see only the top 10 percent at the moment.”

The other 90 percent includes the person's physical, social, mental, and spirit health within the environment of the surrounding community and the area culture, Tidemann explained. In that context, “the mental health feeds the brain,” she said.

On those elements of health, Tidemann challenged the attendees to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. In evaluating oneself, answer “what do you stand for,” she suggested.

How to intervene

The cumulative physical, emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and self-esteem effects of chronic stress show “why intervention is necessary” by any persons who “recognize a catastrophe” before it is too late, Kohlman advised.

“This requires courage by the outside person but you do not have to be aggressive,” Kohlman indicated. “Is it scary? Yes. But it's worth it.” She stressed that saying “I'm not a mental health professional” is not a valid excuse.

“We all have a role to play in preventing suicides,” Kohlman said. “Those who interact with individuals on a regular basis are often in the best position to notice and respond to someone in emotional stress.”

As stress management tips, Kohlman recommends positive self-talk and reframing of the situation, talking openly with family members, building a positive support system, and dealing appropriately with conflicts.

Five action steps

In the face of verbal or behavioral clues or situational factors, Kohlman lists five ways in which “anyone can be the one” to act on behalf of a person in stress and at the risk of suicide.

1. Ask “are you thinking of killing yourself?” directly, Kohlman stated. “That won't increase the risk of suicide.”

2. Take steps to keep the person safe by disrupting the plan on how to commit suicide, Kohlman continued.

3. “Be there with the person. There are no magic words. Just your presence can increase feelings of connectedness.”

4. After such an on the spot intervention, arrange for ongoing supports from family, friends, clergy, or a therapist, Kohlman advised.

5. Finally, follow up with a contact after several days or weeks to “see how they are doing and let them know you care,” she added.

Dispelling myths

To persons who are reluctant to engage in such actions, Kohlman said there are several myths regarding suicide, starting with the notion that “suicide is unpredictable, there's no way to know.” What's true instead is that “there are almost always warning signs” and that “most people who exhibit suicidal behavior make their intentions known ahead of time by either talking about it or giving other clues.”

Another myth is that “asking about suicide will give them the idea or make them mad,” Kohlman emphasized. What's likely instead is that asking the question “in a direct and caring manner will often minimize a person's anxiety and act as a deterrent to suicidal behavior,” she promised.

A third myth is that “if their mind is made up, there's nothing I can do,” Kohlman said. What's most often true, she pointed out, is that heightened suicide risk is “short-term and situation-specific,” that the person “just wants to end the pain they are in, not their life,” and that “reducing the access to highly lethal means saves lives.”

Learning more

For organizations, businesses, groups, institutions, families, or individuals who want to improve their ability on how to deal with a potential suicidal episode, Kohlman said a 60 to 90 minute suicide prevention training session titled “Question, Persuade, Refer” is available for free or a minimal cost.

There are options on locations for holding such sessions, which are designed to “instill confidence in gatekeepers, not to become mental health professionals,” Kohlman stated.

Kohlman can be contacted by e-mail to or by phone at (920) 906-6700, extension 4721.