Focus on Mental Health: Overcoming the Stigma of Depression

This is the fourth in a five-part series on mental health in agriculture.

Wisconsin is home to the Farmer Angel Network, which was started by Randy Roecker to help farmers talk about the stresses they face every day. He started the effort after a neighboring farmer became overwhelmed by stress and committed suicide. Roecker also battled his own stresses after updating their operation shortly before the recession hit in the late 2000s.

“We built a new free-stall and milking parlor. We’d just gotten it finished and that’s when the recession hit in 2008. So, when that happened, the anxiety and everything just was so bad for me, and I got depression extremely bad. I thought I’d be the last person to have this, so when that happened, I thought to myself ‘I never want this to happen to anyone again’ when I got through it. So, in 2018, I decided to put on a meeting on in our church down here in Loganville, so I started putting on these meetings down here with the men’s club at our church and it just kind of grew from there. And, at the first meeting, we were interviewed by the Wisconsin State Journal at that time.”

The report hit the Associated Press network and went all over the country. That wasn’t the end of the media attention for the Farmer Angel Network and the challenges farmers were facing.

“The next thing that happened, we had Soledad O’Brien here from her ‘Matter of Fact’ television show. She sent a correspondent up here and they interviewed everybody at our meeting. And the next thing was we had ‘NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt’ out here and they were at my farm. So, we were on NBC Nightly News with the work that we’re doing here, and basically it was to help farmers overcome the mental challenges that are associated with farming.”

One of the challenges he ran into early on in his farmer meetings was getting them to talk. Farmers are typically independent and self-reliant. However, the farmers he talks to are starting to shed the stigma surrounding things like depression.

“Well, that’s exactly what it was. Farmers keep to themselves and nobody likes to talk about things like this, so of course, one of the things we stress is that it’s okay to talk about this. You want to shed the stigma associated with depression, and that’s the main goal that we’re trying to reach here, to just be okay talking about things like this.”

With the outbreak of COVID-19, Roecker says the impact of the disease is just piling on to the challenges that farmers were already facing for several years.

“It’s just unreal. This is going into our sixth bad year on the dairy operation. I’ve said it in all the publications anyway, we were milking 300 cows and we were losing up to $30,000 a month, and that’s just typical. I’ve heard the figure at $60 to $100 per cow a month. Now, it’s going to be even worse than 2008 with everything related to COVID right now. Luckily, we’re not dumping our milk here, but I have several friends that are having to dump milk across the country.”

It’s not just the dairy industry feeling the effects. Farmers across rural America are having to euthanize hogs and poultry by the thousands because there’s nowhere to send them for processing, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. He’d love to see the Farmer Angel Network idea take off and get going in other parts of rural America to help give farmers an outlet for talking about what they’re facing.

“We started with our church because we figured it’s a farming community, so we started with the church. That’s what we did, and it branched out from there. Then, we went to the local health department and the health nurse there started working with us. She does what is called QPR Training; ‘Question, Persuade, and Refer.’ What we’re actually doing is putting on this training for milk haulers, bankers, nutritionists, people like that who go out to the farm, because when farmers are depressed, they don’t want to leave the farm. That’s why we’re putting these trainings on. She trains people like the milk haulers that can talk to the farmer, question him, and then what they do is persuade him not to do anything, and then refer him to the proper people to help him.”