A Farmer’s Journey with Mental Health

I have heard that we all have our personal journey with mental health as we walk through life’s ups and downs. Westmoreland County Dairy Farmer Chuck Carr shared his journey with mental health and wellness during the February Dairy Summit. Chuck has experienced his share of challenges, including a devastating barn fire in 2007 and a loss of a spouse in 2008. In 2018, though, he suffered his greatest setback when he found himself caught between a gate and an oncoming skidloader. The life-altering accident left him with a traumatic brain injury and a long road ahead to recovery.

That day in September almost three years ago started just like any other day on the farm. They were short on help, and he was milking every shift. He was tired and overworked, simply because there were not enough hours in the day to get everything done. When Chuck saw the skidloader backing toward a closed gate, he knew he didn’t have enough time to fix a mangled gate, so he tried to quickly open it before the skidloader got there. Unfortunately, the skidloader got there first, and the gate smashed Chuck right in the forehead, fracturing his skull in two places.

It’s a situation that is all too familiar on the farm. When I think back on farm injuries I have had, often they occurred when I was rushing to get things done or if I tried to do something by myself instead of asking for help first. Farmers are hardworking and independent. We are supposed to be able to figure it out on our own, and we are not supposed to be vulnerable. But Chuck’s story is really a testament to how vulnerable we all are and how much we do need people around us.

When Chuck woke up in the hospital, he had tremendous vertigo and was suffering from sensitivity to light, noise, and any motion. He saw double for six months, and he needed to learn to walk and remember again. With his loss of hearing, balance and memory, Chuck experienced a deep sense of loss in his dignity and his connectiveness to other people. Before long, he found himself in a deep state of depression. After months of struggling, Chuck was finally pulled back out of it when a friend gave him a set of books from Joni Eareckson Tada that inspired him to find opportunities and move forward.

Farmers at High Risk

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is not often something farmers want to talk about or are even willing to admit could be a challenge for us. As dairy farmers, we inheritably see ourselves as strong, independent, and able to take whatever life throws at us. But we work in a high-stress, high-risk profession, where anxiety and depression are much more common than most of us are willing to admit.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that farmers are more likely to die by suicide than any other occupation. Depression and anxiety often go undiagnosed in the farm community until it is too late. That’s because farmers often view needing help as a sign of weakness, so we internalize the stress until our bodies become like pressure cookers about to explode. The truth is mental wellness is something that inflicts most Americans at some point in our lives, with one in four adults suffering from a diagnoseable mental health disorder in any given year.

Since 2018, Chuck has become an inspiration to many through the books he writes and messages he shares on his blog. In much of his writing, he uses his own life experiences to show others how sufferings can be changed into blessings. Some of the advice he shared at Summit included:

  • Be Vulnerable. Often farmers and people in general are afraid to be vulnerable – they’re afraid to admit their weaknesses. But, when you think about depression, recovering from it requires vulnerability. That not only means admitting you need help if you find yourself struggling to remain positive or cope with anxiety. It also requires you to be willing to roll up your sleeves and be vulnerable with someone else when you see them suffering.“If someone tells you to just snap out of it and be happy when you’re struggling, it usually doesn’t happen,” Chuck told the Summit audience. “You can’t just fix it or put a band-aid on depression. Often recovery takes someone being willing to get right down into the despair with that person and be beside them as they find their way out.”
  • Avoid Internalizing It. When Chuck was in the depths of his depression, he started to internalize the losses he experienced from the accident, and it began to isolate him. It wasn’t until he realized there were people there wanting to help him that he found his way out of his isolation. “When you internalize things, it can feel like you’re all alone and the world has swallowed you up,” he said. “But help is always there, and there is no shame in taking people up on that help when you need it the most.”
  • Seek the Positive. Chuck referenced his family’s barn fire throughout his talk, encouraging others to “get up out of the smoke and think clearly.” Recently I read a statistic that the average person has 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day. Of those, 80 percent are negative, and 95 percent are repetitive. It takes intentionality in your thinking to seek the positive in every situation, even when life seems to constantly be throwing you curveballs. One of Chuck’s examples was how the barn fire gave his family the opportunity to replace their worn-out stanchions with an updated freestall barn and parlor.
  • Help Someone Else. Chuck closed his talk at the Summit by encouraging those listening to help someone else. “Even if you don’t feel like it, it does something internally for you,” he said. “And there is always someone who needs a helping hand.” Studies show that helping others can give you a sense of purpose, put things in perspective, and lower your stress level. For Chuck, his journey back from depression really started with his desire to be an inspiration to others.

If you would like to learn more about Chuck’s journey, I was fortunate to talk with him for this month’s episode of our Cowside Conversations podcast series. If you have an iPhone, you can listen to the Cowside Conversations podcast episode on your Apple Podcasts app. It is also available on Spotify, Amazon Music, or on the web at www.centerfordairyexcellence.org/podcast/, or listen below:

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, the Center has resources available to help you find guidance and support. Visit www.centerfordairyexcellence.org/stress-wellness-resources/ for a list of hotlines, expert-backed articles from psychologists who have experience working with farmers, and a recording of an honest mental health conversation between two dairy farmers. You can reach out to me directly at 717-817-1376 if you want help in finding someone to talk to or resources that can help.

Editor’s Note: This column is written by Jayne Sebright, executive director for the Center for Dairy Excellence, and published monthly in the Lancaster Farming Dairy Reporter.