Depression in ag families — It’s okay to talk about it!

I recently spoke at an agricultural meeting on the topic of addressing mental health challenges on the farm or ranch. When the organizers first asked me to present, I wondered, “What the heck could I possibly share with this group on this heavy topic? I’m not a therapist or medical health professional! What value do I have in this arena?”

But then I remembered that every farm family, including my own, has a story. As an ag community, we’ve seen great highs and lows over the years, and when I look back on a really tough 2019, I realized I have plenty to share on this topic.

Take, for example, the calving season of 2019. One late-season April blizzard had us feeling particularly hopeless. The snow was thick. Underneath it was mud. The wind was blowing. The drifts were huge. And there was no way to get a tractor, truck or four-wheeler out to check calving cows without it getting buried in the muck.

After 36 hours of battling the elements with very little sleep, Dad finally said, “We can’t go out there anymore tonight. It’s too dangerous. We’ll see what kind of mess we have in the morning.”


None of us felt good about this call, but when it’s man against Mother Nature, sometimes you have no choice. So we waited, and as I recall that night, we each expressed our emotions — our stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression, anger, etc. — in different ways.

Dad felt defeated. Shoulders slumped, he sat in his armchair feeling like he had let his beloved mama cows down. Even though he had done everything in his power to prepare for the blizzard, the idea of leaving them alone through the night in a deadly blizzard with calves potentially born in that kind of weather was devastating to him. In short, he felt like a failure.

Mom was teary-eyed. She couldn’t help but mention “retirement” over and over again. Ready to start the next chapter where she wouldn’t have to work so hard and she wouldn’t have to see the stress etched in her husband’s face, she was D.O.N.E.

Don’t call her a fair-weather cowgirl — she’s anything but. However, decades of hard work, long days and little time for fun or rest had left her depleted of energy. She was tired, and she longed for peaceful days ahead.

Tyler, my husband, internalizes his stress. His stony silence is the only cue to study as you wonder how he is handling the pressure of difficult times like this. He doesn’t want to burden anyone else with his troubles or worries, but in his quiet demeanor, the wheels are turning as he walks through what he can do to “fix” the problems at hand.

Then there’s me, the vocal one. When I’m sad and stressed, I’m irritable and lash out irrationally. I get angry and say things I don’t mean.

That’s mental health for you though — it doesn’t discriminate by age, race, gender, wealth or location. The impacts of depression can hit even the happiest of families and the highest of the most highest-functioning individuals.

So what can we do if we are experiencing these emotions ourselves or if we are worried about a friend or family member who may be going through a tough time?

Illinois farm wife and behavioral health consultant Adrienne DeSutter offered some advice at a recent press conference held at an American Farm Bureau Federation meeting.

She says signs of loved ones who may be struggling with mental wellness include: changes in a person’s typical behavior; eating or sleeping habits that change; decline in care of self, or farm, or livestock; sudden weight loss or gain; feeling trapped, hopeless or worthless; feeling like a burden; expressing unbearable pain; aggression or irritability; fatigue; withdrawal or isolation from friends and family; or saying goodbye or giving away prized possessions.

So how do we best approach having a conversation with these loved ones? DeSutter says we can point out things you’ve noticed such as, “Haven’t seen you at church/card club/coffee” or “Just wanting to call and see if everything’s okay.” She says it’s important to listen to hear, validate concerns and provide resources.

If you or someone you know needs assistance or help, call Avera Health Ministry’s farm-specific hotline at (800) 691-4336. ❖

Amanda Radke