Farm stress and suicide is a topic we should not hide

This article originally appeared in the Tulare County Farm Bureau News, June 2024 edition.  Tricia Stever Blattler, the Farm Bureau’s Executive Director penned this article to help members understand the recent death of her husband Robert Blattler, who died by suicide on April 28, 2024 at their home in Exeter. 

According to a Penn State University Extension report, more people die every year from suicide than homicide.  From 2000 to 2021 the suicide rate has increased by 36% nationwide, and in rural America the suicide rate in farmers is much higher, 43.7 deaths per 100,000, over the national average of 14.1 per 100,000 population.   This places farming in the top ten occupations that suffer an increased rate of death by suicide.    In Tulare County, there were 58 suicides in 2023, and 51 of those were males and of those 25 males were in the age bracket of age 34-55.

In the case of my husband Robert, he was a healthy, hardworking, 45-year-old male that was overcome with grief this last year and coupled with a medication change, a stressful work environment, and too many new medications prescribed over the last two months, ended up in a spiraling health crisis that ended with his death by suicide.   I share this painful personal story with our members because suicide is still so commonly considered a secretive, taboo topic.  One that we hide from obituaries and speak quietly about as we try to pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move forward, never quite understanding what could make someone do this most unthinkable act.

Farm suicides are often even more isolated and talked little about, farmers often internalize their struggles, feel hopeless and shameful, and do not seek counseling or care soon enough for anxiety or depression.

While Robert was seeking medical and behavioral support services, he was also struggling to manage the demands of a busy agricultural job.  However, removing Robert from work and placing him on short-term disability created additional feelings of shame and guilt, that he was failing as a husband and as a provider in our home.  Those pressures quickly consumed him, and the doctors’ appointments, behavioral counseling, and too many medications became this hurricane in our lives, that showed up suddenly like a storm, and left devastation in its wake.

What happened? How did we get to this place? For Robert, he experienced a withdrawal syndrome known as rebound anxiety from coming off a medicine too fast earlier this year, and we believe that was the very beginning of his crisis.  He had suffered migraines and vertigo issues for a few years and used anxiety medicine to try to manage those symptoms.  What ensued next was insomnia, panic, and anxiety episodes that had to be controlled by new medications. Robert’s crisis only happened over about 8 weeks from beginning to the tragic ending.

As we found, behavioral health services are overwhelmed in the Central Valley, and so are good doctors, his appointments, tests, follow-ups, and supportive services took precious time in an over-subscribed system, and this was unfortunately a big contributor to Robert’s situation spiraling out of control.   In just 8 weeks his life and mine were completely and irrevocably changed.

While external factors on the farm impact stress behaviors, accessing care alone is a major stressor, and one that men probably find even more difficult.  Here in Tulare County, there is a steep increase in middle-aged working professional males that are ending their lives by suicide.  This is a very alarming statistic, and one that we should all care about changing. In 2023 Tulare County had 58 suicides, which is the highest count since 2008, the trend is moving in the wrong direction.

I want Robert’s life and his tragic passing to be a reason to take pause and consider this important topic.  We all lead lives that seem to have unending pressures and stresses that never get easier.  Stressors in agriculture are plentiful,  external factors like climate, market fluctuations, rising input costs, regulatory burdens, and the physical demands of the work can take a heavy toll on a person. Even with access to medical services, Robert’s situation could not be swiftly managed, and it ultimately led him to take his own life.   I think of the pressures facing farmers today, and I know they are immense.  I know Robert struggled with letting his job occupy too much real estate in his mind, and I know that ultimately that stress was a big part of the strain that ended his life so tragically.

If you have read this far, I encourage you to take time for self-care, and work to reach out to your neighbors and fellow farmers, ask how they are doing.  Listen… really listen and seek to recognize the warning signs that may be present in those passing conversations. Sometimes there are no warning signs, sometimes when a person makes that choice it may be from a very sudden and unexpected need to feel empowered to do something when they have otherwise felt powerless. For Robert he had a very normal day before his death, he took a long Jeep ride with our beloved dogs, it was a beautiful day that he seemed to enjoy immensely.  None of his care providers saw any warning signs.  Sometimes the signs just are not there.

If you need help, I hope you will reach out using the resources below.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a national network that provides free and confidential support 24/7. Dial the three-digit code 988 to access the Helpline. For people who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have hearing loss, there is a chat option on their website. For TTY users, use your preferred relay service or dial 711 and then 988. can be another confidential place to find mental health providers and resources in our region. Locally, you may also reach out to the Tulare County Suicide Prevention Taskforce at 559-624-7449 or at [email protected].

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