The Farmer Logo

Suicide and stress impact farmers’ mental health

Which ‘F’ stress response are you? Deploy protective strategies to safeguard mind and body.

4 Min Read
Farmers shake hands in front of red pickup truck
LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGMENT: People dealing with mental health issues need to have someone who will just listen, without passing judgment. Monica McConkey

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series as Farm Progress focuses on mental health awareness for our nation’s farmers and ranchers during Mental Health Month. Part 1 features the story of two farmers who have struggled with mental health issues, and the final part will offer resources in the coming weeks on

In rural areas, the impact of stress on mental health cannot be overstated.

“People who are suicidal, generally don’t want to die,” Hannah Mulvihill says. “What they want is to not live any longer with the kind of pain they’re experiencing.”

Mulvihill, the executive director and CEO of Mental Health Minnesota, says this pain is particularly acute among middle-aged white men in rural communities, who account for a staggering 70% of all suicide deaths — nearly four times the rate of women.

Monica McConkey, a rural mental health specialist with Eyes on the Horizon Consulting in Minnesota, advocates for awareness and protective measures to help individuals navigate adversity and safeguard their well-being.

She says stress left untreated can significantly affect both physical and mental health, making it crucial for farmers and others to recognize its impact and seek support when needed.

Ask the hard question

Suicide rates in rural areas are twice that in urban areas, and about 50% of those who die by suicide have no history of mental health diagnosis or treatment.

The signs and symptoms vary person to person, Mulvihill says, so it is important to be observant of behavior changes — then listen and act.

“It’s strongly encouraged to be direct, to ask someone if they’re thinking about suicide,” she says. There’s a myth that talking about suicide increases suicidal behavior. That’s not true. You’re not putting the idea in someone’s head.”

Once you’ve asked that direct question, Mulvihill says how you respond is imperative.

How do you respond when you ask if someone is considering suicide?

If they say “yes”:

  • Take it seriously.

  • Remain calm.

  • Thank them for their honesty and openness.

  • Encourage them to talk about the reasons they feel this way — and listen.

  • The most important action you can take is to listen … really listen.

  • Encourage them to reach out for help, even offering to make the call to 988 with them.

If they say “no,” keep up the conversation:

  • Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling.

  • Support their coping and resiliency. Ask what helps them feel better.

  • Encourage them to reach out to resources such as 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

  • Remind them that you are there for them.

  • Listen without lecturing or judging.

  • Be vigilant about behaviors you are noticing, and continue to check in with them on a regular basis.

In rural communities, suicide draws the most headlines, but stress is an often-hidden mental health issue.

Related: Farmers don't do mental health

The 4 “F’s” of stress response

According to McConkey, stress comes from many forms — relationships, finances, kids, traffic — that may not be life-or-death incidents. But the brain doesn’t decipher that.

Instead, it triggers an acute physiological reaction known as the fight-or-flight response, and it is different for everyone.

McConkey explains all four stress response modes:

  • Fight. Individuals become confrontational, raising their voices and clearing the table.

  • Flight. Withdrawal. People may not physically leave the situation, but mentally disengage. Some turn to coping mechanisms. Some women use self-deprecation like emotional eating, while men may turn to alcohol.

  • Freeze. Individuals feel paralyzed, unsure of how to react.

  • Fawn. The person tries to make everything OK for others — maintain harmony. Individuals tend to work really hard, really fast.

While the first step to improve mental health is understanding your response mode, the second is identifying the right protection package.

Safeguard from stress overload

“There are the things in our lives that help us get through tough times,” McConkey explains. “We need to set those up before stress mounts.”

She describes a few options:

  • Spiritual retreat. For some, this is religious beliefs. For others, it’s being in nature, serving others, or finding solace in music. They encompass what feeds our souls, gives meaning to life, and provides hope for the future.

  • Let go. Answer this question: What do you hold onto tightly? It could be thoughts, habits, addictions, or even people. Sometimes, letting go benefits us during adversity — or even in everyday life — because it frees mental and emotional space. Consider what you’re clinging to and whether it’s truly helpful. Letting go can be liberating and empowering.

  • Reframe thoughts. Focus on positive thinking or forward thinking. It’s not blaming. It’s not living in a place of being the victim. For instance, instead of concentrating on an unsupportive family, reframe it to “I’ve done a lot of hard things in my life, and I can do this.” Also, take a step back and look at the bigger picture — how far you’ve come in a situation.

  • Avoid solitude. Develop relationships. When struggling or stressed, find time to interact with someone. That doesn’t mean bare your soul and tell them everything, just don’t isolate. Often loneliness and the feeling of no one caring can be a precursor to suicide.

“A counselor is someone who will listen without judgment,” McConkey adds. “Please seek us out.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, dial 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Additional resources can also be found at

About the Author(s)

Kevin Schulz

Editor, The Farmer

Kevin Schulz joined The Farmer as editor in January of 2023, after spending two years as senior staff writer for Dakota Farmer and Nebraska Farmer magazines. Prior to joining these two magazines, he spent six years in a similar capacity with National Hog Farmer. Prior to joining National Hog Farmer, Schulz spent a long career as the editor of The Land magazine, an agricultural-rural life publication based in Mankato, Minn.

During his tenure at The Land, the publication grew from covering 55 Minnesota counties to encompassing the entire state, as well as 30 counties in northern Iowa. Covering all facets of Minnesota and Iowa agriculture, Schulz was able to stay close to his roots as a southern Minnesota farm boy raised on a corn, soybean and hog finishing farm.

One particular area where he stayed close to his roots is working with the FFA organization.

Covering the FFA programs stayed near and dear to his heart, and he has been recognized for such coverage over the years. He has received the Minnesota FFA Communicator of the Year award, was honored with the Minnesota Honorary FFA Degree in 2014 and inducted into the Minnesota FFA Hall of Fame in 2018.

Schulz attended South Dakota State University, majoring in agricultural journalism. He was also a member of Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity and now belongs to its alumni organization.

His family continues to live on a southern Minnesota farm near where he grew up. He and his wife, Carol, have raised two daughters: Kristi, a 2014 University of Minnesota graduate who is married to Eric Van Otterloo and teaches at Mankato (Minn.) East High School, and Haley, a 2018 graduate of University of Wisconsin-River Falls. She is married to John Peake and teaches in Hayward, Wis. 

When not covering the agriculture industry on behalf of The Farmer's readers, Schulz enjoys spending time traveling with family, making it a quest to reach all 50 states — 47 so far — and three countries. He also enjoys reading, music, photography, playing basketball, and enjoying nature and campfires with friends and family.

[email protected]

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like