Farmers talk stressors, coping methods with mental health struggles

By Tammie Sloup FarmWeek

The Farm Family Resource Initiative’s Rural Mental Health Summit brought farmers and health professionals together in Springfield for a conversation about agricultural mental health. Panelists included, from left, Bonnie Landwehr, licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health program supervisor with SIU Medicine; Knox County farmers Liz and Matt Hulsizer; and Kankakee County Farm Bureau President Greg St. Aubin. (Photo by Tammie Sloup for FarmWeek)

Take a day or two off from work. Go for a walk.

Such advice for those struggling with stress or anxiety can be helpful, but for farmers, the suggestions are almost laughable.

“There’s no sick days, no health days, the work is still there. It doesn’t go away. And if you take a day off, it just compounds the next day,” said Matt Hulsizer, a Knox County farmer.

Hulsizer, along with his wife, Liz, joined Kankakee County Farm Bureau President Greg St. Aubin and Bonnie Landwehr, a licensed clinical social worker and behavioral health program supervisor with SIU Medicine, during a panel discussion on mental health stress in the ag community. It was part of the Farm Family Resource Initiative’s Rural Mental Health Summit at the Memorial Learning Center in Springfield. The audience of mostly health care professionals heard about ways to better respond to and treat farmers’ mental well-being.

Hulsizer lost his father to suicide in 2013, shortly after he and Liz were married. St. Aubin struggled for years until he was diagnosed as bipolar. Landwehr farms with her husband in Macoupin County and has counseled farmers and oversees a free virtual suicide bereavement support group for those in the ag community.

The farmers opened up about their personal experiences and shared coping methods.

The Hulsizers and St. Aubin agreed telehealth has been a saving grace but acknowledged the broadband deserts throughout the state.

“I’m still a work in progress,” Matt Hulsizer admitted. “I do talk to a therapist through telehealth, and she doesn’t have really any ag background, which makes it difficult sometimes, but she’s a quick learner.”

Telehealth has broken the barrier for him, Liz Hulsizer said, adding otherwise, he’d have to drive an hour for an in-office visit. With telehealth, he can talk to a therapist while he’s driving the tractor.

St. Aubin also said telehealth has been a game-changer. Even in more populated areas, it can take weeks to get an office appointment.

Being honest with yourself and others around you also is key, the farmers said.

“Now that I’ve gone through this, I’m here because I’m an advocate for mental health and I’m not afraid of letting everyone know this is what I am; this is what I’m capable of,” St. Aubin said.

“If I had a broken arm you’d be able to understand what I could or couldn’t do and everyone would be very accommodating. I have to make sure that everyone understands around me that sometimes the stress of the day gets to me and I have to take care of myself. I’m not bowing out or trying to get out of any sort of responsibility, but I’ve got to do my therapy. I’ve got to make sure that I can take care of myself because in the long run I’ve got to be healthy for a long time.”

St. Aubin said although it might be met with skepticism, he suggests farmers can work better together. Several farmers, including himself, share responsibilities in their operations.

“Farmers’ businesses are on display for everybody to see. That’s why farmers are so to themselves, and everybody has this idea of ‘I constantly have to do all this myself because I’m constantly being watched by my competitor,’” St. Aubin said, adding he advocates for farmers working together to help with stress.

“Most farmers are not willing to do that. But again, that’s what part of my therapy was. I can take a day off. I don’t have to worry about things I’m not that good at. There is that option that farmers can work together more often than they do and still not lose out but maintain where you make things better.”

Medication also has helped the farmers deal with day-to-day stressors. Just give the medication time to work, they stressed.

Spending quality time with spouses also has helped, the farmers said.

Landwehr added farming couples should set expectations ahead of seasons and identify potential setbacks.

“And for couples, I really push the difference between a business meeting and a date,” she said.

Reaching out to a farmer suspected of having mental health struggles also can be challenging. But the right approach can be lifesaving.

Liz Hulsizer suggested “leveling down” the conversation, meaning start off the dialogue by saying something like “I’m having a terrible day, how’s yours?” While approaching someone about their mental state can prompt them to pull away, saying something is better than staying silent, she added.

“I would rather lose them as a friend than lose them as a person,” she said. 

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit