HIGHLAND COUNTY, Ohio — Outside of Hillsboro, two farmers have connected over a shared commitment to ending the stigma around mental health needs in rural America.
First-generation farmer Brandon Fullenkamp knew he was in trouble when his pigs got loose, and he struggled to summon the energy and focus to bring them back to their pen.
A neighboring farmer, Nathan Brown, trained in the Mental Health First Aid program by Ohio State University Extension Program, knew to ask his friend if he was OK and not to accept the first answer he heard.
“I went through QPR training: question, persuade, refer," Brown said. "It’s mental health first aid training that I recommend for anybody to take if you have the opportunity."
Sensing that things were not all right with Fullenkamp, the training gave Brown the tools to listen and ask the most difficult question.
“I remember asking him, have you had thoughts of suicide?" he said. "Have you had thoughts of hurting yourself? And I’ve never asked anyone that before."
Fullenkamp said there was just a lot of anxiety.
"It was hard to get started in the mornings, and I love farming, but there were so many things, and if you don’t take the first bite and just do the first job, it’s easy to get stuck and not get anything done, (to) just think about all the things that need done," he said.
Accustomed to challenges that are out of their control, from unpredictable weather to rising and falling prices, the costs of farming equipment, and so on, the agricultural community is traditionally stoic in the face of adversity. But a new generation of farmers believe that accepting help is a show of strength.
The Ohio Farm Bureau is at the forefront of advocating for change in rural communities; assuring their members that depression, anxiety, all forms of mental illness, are real and don’t have to be fought alone.
“’Farmer strong’ back when I was a kid used to mean that if you had challenges of any type you’d just pull up your bootstrap and rub some dirt on it and not talk to anybody, but I think we are seeing that change, and those conversations show farmers they’re worth more than their farm,” Farm Bureau Communications Director Ty Higgins said.
He points out that farmers are more than what their crops yield or how many acres they own. The key is in normalizing that people may need help and training mental health professionals with an understanding of the unique trials experienced in farming.
“This isn’t a 9-5 job that I can just walk away from," Brown said. "This is where I live, and I don’t go home from it either. But there are ways to cope, and we have to learn from it."
For Fullenkamp, a rural Christian-based mental health center had counselors who understood the realities of farming and were skilled practitioners trained in treating anxiety and depression. Since his initial crisis, he said he goes when he needs to.
“At the first notice of symptoms, I call," he said. "I’ll get an appointment. If I need to go again, I know I can.”
Friends who understand what mental illness looks like and are brave enough to say something can make the difference between suffering alone and getting help. For farmers like Brandon Fullenkamp and Nathan Brown, their friendship is a testament of what help can achieve.