By Jeff Winton
Founder and Chairman, Rural Minds
Owner, Wall Street Dairy, LLC
Chautauqua County, New York
Raising food animals on a commercial scale presents innumerable challenges under ordinary circumstances. The emergence of COVID-19, however, magnified those challenges to unprecedented levels.
Few in the industry will ever forget worker illness that caused plants to slow or suspend production or the impact of lost food service business. Add to this highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), which surfaced while COVID was still circulating.
The threat HPAI poses to the poultry industry is expected to continue. It may even worsen because the virus appears to be more prevalent in wild birds, potentially increasing the spread to commercial flocks—and the continued stress it poses to those in the poultry industry.
Mental illness in rural America
When considered in the context of the existing mental illness epidemic in rural America, the depth of the problem becomes clear:
- There are 46 million people living in rural areas, roughly 15% of the national population
- Suicide rates among people living in rural areas are 64% to 68% higher compared to people living in large urban areas
- Suicide rates have increased 45% in non-metro areas from 2000 through 2020
- Farmers are twice as likely to die by suicide than those in other occupations
Recognizing warning signs that someone is suffering can save their life. If you notice any of the following, it could mean that a person may be considering suicide:
- They discuss wanting to die, having no reason to live, being a burden to others or wanting to seek revenge
- They express feeling hopeless or trapped, are in unbearable emotional or physical pain, are extremely sad, agitated or anxious or they are full of anger and rage
- They begin increasing the use of drugs or alcohol, withdraw from friends and family, sleep too little or too much, experience dramatic mood swings or act recklessly
- There’s a decline in the care of domestic animals or the appearance of a previously well-maintained farmstead, abrupt sale of equipment or livestock, an increase in farm accidents or unpaid bills.
My personal experience
As the owner of an operational dairy farm in western New York and member of a multi-generational farming family, I know firsthand the challenges confronting farmers. I also, sadly, know the reality of pain and loss affecting so many.
Years ago, my nephew Brooks died by suicide. He was a seemingly healthy 28-year-old father, farmer and steel-mill worker. He was strong and kind, but tragically suffered in silence due in large part to the unnecessary stigma attached to mental healthcare in rural communities.
In memory of Brooks, I founded Rural Minds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the silent suffering of mental illness in rural America. The organization provides information and resources tailored specifically to folks living in rural American communities, many of whom are underserved by mental healthcare.
At Rural Minds, we also address the stigma that surrounds mental illness, which may be perceived as a personal failure or weakness. This can often lead people to remain quiet about their struggles and avoid seeking proper care. We aim to counteract stigma through education and the power of sharing personal stories.
Now more than ever, it is vitally important for poultry producers, contract farmers and all other poultry industry workers to look out for their own mental health and that of their coworkers, neighbors, friends and family.
If you observe any of these warning signs, consider reaching out. Ask if they are considering suicide. Let them know that you are listening and that you care.
You should also consider performing safety checks and, if possible, restricting their access to lethal means such as medications or weapons. Let them know that help is available, confidentially and free of charge, such as the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
If you sense that a crisis is acute and are worried for their immediate safety, seek professional assistance. Let them know you are contacting a doctor, psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor or social worker.
For more resources and information on rural mental health, visit the Rural Minds website.