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Walking a mile in another farmer’s boots: Gaining insight into my mental health advocacy

Brittany Olson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 07 February 2019

Those who know me well know that I’ve dealt with mental illness in some form since childhood. After surviving an abusive parent and a very traumatic divorce, I remember having my first panic attack in fourth grade and going on medication for anxiety and depression on and off throughout middle and high school.

Those who know me well also know that I’ve been very open about my struggle to gain a handle on my mental health in order to shatter the stigma that clouds mental illness like a dark, murky aura. I feel that it is especially important for me, as a farmer, to share my story because of the high suicide rate that plagues our industry. Before, when people would message me privately to share their story, I tried to be understanding. After all, I’m a farmer, not a psychologist.

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I understood why they didn’t necessarily want to go on medication, but I didn’t quite understand why recommending therapy or asking for help was so hard until winter struck in 2018. In the matter of about six weeks, we lost four heifers and two of our best cows to a dizzying assortment of anomalies on top of all the other stress we deal with in a depressed farm economy as price takers.

I remember my mental anguish ratcheting up a few notches with each loss until it finally turned into full-fledged depression with the loss of my favorite Jersey cow, Heather. I was either unable to get out of bed or unable to fall asleep. The very symptoms that I take medication to keep mostly at bay and warn other farmers to be on the lookout for had come home to roost. The unending pile of tragedy just seemed to build without any kind of way for us to dig out.

It was then that I realized why a lot of farmers who struggle don’t want to tell anyone what’s going on.

It was then that I realized why people don’t want to go to therapy or counseling.

And, lastly, it was then that I realized why some people took their own lives.

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We don’t want to be talked about at the coffee shop, equipment dealer or feed mill by our peers who more or less serve as armchair quarterbacks.

We don’t want to be judged by our friends and neighbors as failures because we’re going through a particularly rough stretch and need an extra hand.

We don’t want to go to therapy because not only is it hard to make the time, but mustering up the energy to drive sometimes considerable distances to talk to a complete stranger about our problems after the daily physical and mental labor we put out is sometimes asking too much.

Some of us can no longer handle the pain and don’t see any way out except for ending their own lives.

Sometimes it takes a good walk through mud, snow, ice, fire and pain in another farmer’s boots to really understand what others are experiencing so you can truly practice what you preach.

If any of this sounds like something happening in your own life or with someone you know, please make the time to see a health care provider or mental health professional. If you aren’t sure where to turn, reach out to a trusted friend or neighbor who may point you in the right direction. Most importantly, take care of yourself and look out for your fellow farmers. It’s rough out there right now, and we all need each other to get through this.  end mark

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Brittany Olson is a dairy farmer and freelance writer from Chetek, Wisconsin. She and her husband, Sam, milk 40 registered Holsteins and Jerseys on their 116-year-old farm.

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