Dan Hanrahan

Dan Hanrahan understands just how stressful 2020 has been, but he says more farmers need to be willing to seek help when the pressure gets too great for them to handle.

CUMMING, Iowa — Dan Hanrahan states it simply: “To me, mental health is just health,” he says. “We can all learn how to do things better.”

Hanrahan, 43, runs a cow-calf operation with his parents near here. He belongs to a variety of organizations. He considers himself a sane, rational person.

But he says there was a time when he needed help, and he suspects that in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic upended just about everything and some farmers have dealt with drought and a derecho and all kinds of economic challenges, there are probably quite a few farmers who are dealing with stress and could use a little help.

That’s nothing to be ashamed of, Hanrahan says.

Hanrahan describes a time a few years ago when he was going through a divorce. His father was dealing with health problems. His off-farm employment situation was going through changes.

“Everybody is equipped to handle ripples of varying degrees, but sometimes the boat gets rocked by ripple after ripple and it can become more challenging,” he says. “It can get depressing knowing there is another wave coming.”

That’s when it might be a good idea to get help. That help can come from family or a friend. It can come from a minister. It can come from a counselor or some other mental health professional.

It’s a message echoed by many of those mental health professionals.

“My belief is that there is a real public health risk,” says Lauren Welter, a psychologist from Monticello, in northeast Iowa.

For many in society, but especially in the rural part of society, it can be hard to ask for help, Welter says. Sometimes, she adds, it is necessary.

“We’re a herd species,” she explains. “We need each other.”

Whether this year’s challenges are leading to more depression or other mental health issues is still unclear, according to David Brown, an Extension behavioral health specialist at Iowa State University. But he says there is clearly a lot of stress in the world and in the countryside.

It may be an over-used phrase right now, Brown says, “but it is kind of a perfect storm.”

And he agrees with Hanrahan that one key is to forget any stigma about mental health.

“It’s just like any other health condition,” he says. And because of that, he says farmers and others under stress should consider counseling or other forms of treatment, just as they would consider surgery or rehabilitation for a knee or shoulder injury.

It does concern him that there appears to have been a spike in gun sales in a stressful year such as this one, because too many people, especially rural men, tend to use guns in suicide attempts. While one certainly doesn't necessarily lead to the other, the correlation is concerning.

“It makes me a little nervous,” he says.

Peggy Huppert is executive director of the Iowa chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She says in a normal year, one in five Iowans will experience a mental health condition. This year, during the time of COVID-19, the number is probably closer to one in four, she says.

Still, there are things that can be done.

Josie Rudolphi, an assistant professor of agricultural safety and health at the University of Illinois, talks about having a PLAN to deal with mental health. That acronym stands for: Prepare, lean on loved ones, activate coping mechanisms, and nip negative self-talk.

One of the issues regarding the stress this year is that there have been waves of it, much like the ripples that Hanrahan talks about, Rudolphi says.

“It is challenging our resiliency,” she explains.

And the endless nature of the crisis adds to the problem because some people simply get pandemic fatigue.

For some farmers, the harvest may present an escape from those stresses as they get out of the house and into the field. For others, the stress of harvest, especially if they are looking at storm- or drought-damaged fields, could make things worse.

Rudolphi suggests farmers prepare COVID-19 kits for their tractor cabs and combines, just as some people have done for their cars and pickups. Just take a Ziploc bag and put in some masks, wipes, hand sanitizer and disposable tissues. That type of preparation can reduce virus risks, but could also reduce some stress.

There are also many places to find information or help, Rudophi says. The Iowa Concerns Hotline at 1-800-447-1985 is useful because it offers not only crisis support but also good information. A number of websites can offer useful information as well.

Hanrahan says his best advice is to not get isolated. He says that, for him, working on his relationships with family and close friends has always been an important part of mental health. And he says he has learned the value of talking to someone, whether it is a mental health professional or a friend.

There is help and there is no shame in seeking it out, he says.

Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.