Rhonda was a beautiful, vibrant California dairy girl with big hair, a wide smile and zest for life. She was the first friend I made there when I moved across the country from Michigan to work at World Wide Sires. I remember the beauty of her wedding day, followed just months later by the dark day of her funeral. Rhonda died by suicide in her 20s. The pain of her death is one of the big reasons I speak about mental wellness in agriculture, and her picture remains in my office today as a reminder of the importance of mental health.

Payn michele
Cause Matters Corp.
Michele Payn speaks and writes to help the people of agriculture have tough conversations about m...

Suicide. A topic that none of us in agriculture want to talk about, but we need to. In 2022, deaths by suicide increased by 2.6% and are two-thirds higher in rural areas, according to the CDC. Even scarier, rural youth have suicide rates double that of urban youth. While we may not want to discuss suicide, data shows that it’s a topic too important to keep ignoring. Every time I speak to an audience about mental wellness, people tell me how they know farmers or veterinarians who died by suicide.

A recently published study in the National Library of Medicine on mental health in agriculture shows “a strong association between parent and adolescent mental health and parental depressed mood and debt.” Sixty percent of farm parents that responded to the study (predominantly male) and farm adolescents met the criteria for being at least mildly depressed. If we won’t do it for ourselves, how about we work on mental wellness to do better for our kids?

One of the keys to changing these statistics is to consider human stress as much as we look at stress in our cows. Stress has overtaken weight as the top health condition being managed in the U.S. The dairy business is filled with chronic stressors like high input prices, labor shortages, isolation, profit margins, herd disease, weather, feed prices – not to mention working with family, fear of losing the farm, being questioned by consumers, protecting our independence, dealing with employees and the culture of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

The concerns around how this is impacting agriculture led to stress and suicide being included in National Farm Safety and Health Week in fall 2023, themed “No one can take your place.” Agrisafe Network offered a variety of farm safety and health free webinars that were recorded, including my session “Protecting Your Brain from Stress” that reviews the SMART approach.


Science shows that the results of stress are predictable, much like we know them to be in cattle. Stress sets off a series of chemical reactions that are designed to prepare us to engage with or run away from the stressor. Adrenaline is released to prepare the muscle for exertion and cortisol to regulate bodily functions. This results in increased blood pressure, faster heart rate, slowed or stopped digestive system and blood clotting more quickly.

It is key for our well-being to find ways to lessen the cortisol load, which was covered in one of my previous articles published in Progressive Dairy. It’s important to understand that your brain is going to respond to stress with chemical reactions, whether you like it or not.

Long-term, chronic stress is a known risk factor in many leading causes of premature death in adults. The Mayo Clinic shows that ongoing stress increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes and deterioration of the immune system. A constant cortisol release can shrink your brain – and is a risk factor for depression, addiction and suicide.

What are some of the symptoms of chronic stress that you need to look for in yourself, friends, family or employees? Social withdrawal, daily use of drugs/alcohol, agitated body language, change in sleeping patterns, racing heart, headaches, not eating, loneliness, always being tired, change in farm or vet clinic appearance and constant overwhelm. If a personality or farm has changed dramatically, it may be a red flag.

Balancing the risk factors against protective factors can help – especially if you’re proactive – putting these in place before major stress hits. I recommend a SMART approach to increase protective factors to help you manage stress – and its impact on your brain.

  • Sleep: It’s essential for rational decision-making. Go to a doctor if you’re not sleeping well for more than two weeks.
  • Move: Exercise reduces cortisol – take 20 minutes to get your blood moving three times a week.
  • Ask Your Food: Nutrition directly influences emotions and the brain. Feed your mental health.
  • Rest: Take a break. Distance provides perspective.
  • Train Your Brain: Avoid negativity bias. Think positive and laugh 15 times daily for health maintenance.

How can you help someone cope with stress? Knowing some of the signs is the first step, and working through the SMART approach yourself can increase your understanding. Demonstrating how to accept help can also go a long way – agriculture is filled with independent people who like to just fix things themselves. If you’re more open about the struggles you face, it may be the catalyst for others to realize they’re not alone.

Providing an opportunity to take a break can help a lot. This provides perspective and a lens that is much wider than being in the thick of the farm, ranch or veterinary practice all day, every day. Inviting others to join you for activities does two things: it gets both of you away and grows social support. Did you know that just three social ties can lower your chances of early death by 200%?

“What if I offend them?” is one of the most common questions I hear when speaking to groups about mental wellness. Yes, it is hard to have a conversation with someone about their mental health. However, it’s more important to say something if you see something. If you are not close enough to a person, find a spouse, faith leader, friend, medical professional or loved one to alert them of your concerns.

And if you are in a situation with someone who you’re concerned will hurt themselves, such as an employee, family member or neighbor? Know that you will not plant the idea of suicide. Katie Downs from Cornell’s New York Farm Net says, “If you think they may harm themselves, ask them, ‘Are you contemplating suicide? Are you going to harm yourself?’ Ask them directly because they may be totally relieved that someone else sees how stressed out they are.”

When it comes to suicide, depression and stress levels, it’s always better to have the tough conversations. If you see something, say something. Please! I know that firsthand from losing my friend Rhonda. I wish I knew then what I know now.

Let’s all remember that agriculture is a people business. It is equally important to care for the humans as it is to care for our cows. How can you be SMART in managing stressors today?

References omitted but are available upon request by sending an email to the editor.