John Blaske stood up from his kitchen table and walked around to an old cupboard. He opened the cupboard’s main cabinet and retrieved two notebooks, returned to his seat and placed the books down in front of him.
The pages are lined with cursive writing, detailing Blaske’s childhood, his later life and his thoughts.
“I’m trying to write a book,” he said as he settled back into his chair.
He wants to tell his story, because for nearly 30 years not a day has passed that Blaske doesn’t think about suicide.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study of 17 states in 2016, which outlined suicide rates by occupation. Farming, fishing and forestry — which is heavily dominated by farming in the Midwest and High Plains — topped the occupational list with a rate of 84.5 suicides per 100,000 people. That number is even higher than the rate for the most vulnerable demographic, U.S. veterans: 73.3 per 100,000 for veterans age 18 to 29.
About a year and a half ago — before he began writing in the notebooks — Blaske was flipping through a copy of Missouri Farmer Today. He saw an article that stopped him in his tracks.
“If I read that one time that day, I read it a dozen, fifteen times,” he said. “It just hit me so hard.”
The article was written by Dr. Mike Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer from Harlan, Iowa, discussing the high suicide rate among America’s farmers. Blaske felt like it was written about him.
Losing the farm
Blaske grew up in Blaine, Kansas. He was a shy child and not an exceptional student. He didn’t care about or understand the subjects in high school and couldn’t wait to get out.
He went on to study welding and diesel mechanics in Manhattan, and his low grades turned to A's. He met his wife, Joyce, and took his technical knowledge to a farm near Onaga, Kansas.
The farm was around 300 acres.
“It wasn’t a lot, but it was all we wanted,” Blaske said. “We didn’t want three or four thousand acres. It was just a nice deal here.”
In 1982, during the farm crisis of the ‘80s, the Blaske’s home burned down on Thanksgiving Day, which started from a spark from their wood stove. Shortly after losing their home, the farm crisis worsened, and the bank raised the Blaske’s interest rates from seven percent to nearly 20.
“When you have this amount of acres to work with, and the interest is going up here,” Blaske said raising his hand higher and higher. “Something's got to give. It won’t work.”
The family filed for bankruptcy and lost 265 acres.
For the first time, Blaske thought of suicide.
"I had several nervous breakdowns,” he said. “I was in and out of the hospital several times with depression and other things.”
He kept silent about his thoughts of suicide.
Breaking the silence
The Blaske’s retained 35 acres and re-built an earth-sheltered home on the property. Blaske plants about 11 acres of corn and 11 of soybeans, has cattle on an additional 80 acres down the road and has hogs.
The kitchen of the new home is covered with photos of Blaske’s six children — three girls and three boys — and 13 grandchildren. Blaske was sitting in the kitchen when he read the article by Rosmann in Missouri Farmer Today.
The article said to contact Rosmann by email, but Blaske doesn’t own a computer to this day.
“So I went in here to the library, and they helped me get a little notice sent to him,” he said. “Well, about two days later he called me.”
Rosmann has spent his life focusing on agricultural behavioral health. Rosmann and his wife left positions in academia at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville for a farm, but Rosmann still spent his years trying to make referrals, educate, and remove the stigmas around mental health in rural areas.
When Rosmann called, Blaske told him everything. They’ve never met face-to-face, and Rosmann never provided any counseling. They just talked, and Blaske said it helped.
“I’ve enjoyed talking to him,” Blaske said. “He’s called quite a few times, in fact.”
Rosmann developed an idea he named the “agrarian imperative,” which outlines the belief that agricultural producers have an inherent drive to provide necessities for human life and hold onto their land and other resources that allow them to produce those necessities.
When farmers and ranchers lose those resources, it can lead to depression and feelings of hopelessness.
Blaske remembers running between banks trying to find a way to keep as much of the farm as possible.
“We tried,” he said. “On the north side of the road, there’s 140 acres that was part of it, and we wanted to let them have that back.
“Well, you’d go down there one day and talk to the federal land bank and ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll do that, we’ll work with you on that, we’ll take that back and write that much off.’ Then you go down there a week later and it’s ‘Oh, hell no. We aren’t working with you on this.’ It was just back and forth.”
According to the CDC report, factors contributing to the high suicide rate among farmers may include “social isolation, potential for financial losses, barriers to, and unwillingness to seek, mental health services (which might be limited in rural areas), and access to lethal means.”
But Blaske cites a feeling that his life and livelihood were slipping away, and he had no means to stop it and no idea where to turn for help.
Where to turn
Charlie Griffin believes fighting that hopeless feeling is a good start to combating depression and suicide among agricultural producers.
Griffin grew up on a farm in Rice County before finding a career in rural mental health. He ran a private practice as a marriage and family therapist and consulted with a small-town hospital in developing a rural wellness program. He is now a research assistant professor at Kansas State University.
In 1985, Griffin began working with farm crisis assistance.
“I think assistance makes a world of difference,” Griffin said. “But often people don’t know who to reach out to, who to talk to, or don’t have specialists in their own community.”
From 1985 to 1994, Griffin worked with the farm crisis hotline, which provided a full-spectrum of resources in one place. The team included an attorney, a farm needs specialist and more. Griffin covered mental health.
“When somebody called, sometimes they’d end up talking to all of us, depending on what was going on in their life,” Griffin said.
By 1994, the funding for the crisis line had dried up or been moved elsewhere. Funding went away, and programs shrank. Today, Kansas Agricultural Mediation Services through KSU is what’s left.
KAMS offers financial mediation and family mediation services. Griffin said some involved with KAMS have been there since the farm crisis hotline and have a tremendous amount of expertise, but not particularly with mental health.
In 2001, Griffin received federal funding to start the Kansas Rural Family Helpline. Through the helpline, he offered emotional and behavioral health help, referred folks to professional services and partnered heavily with community mental health centers. The funding lasted 10 years and wasn’t renewed.
“People will use hotlines,” Griffin said.
And evidence backs him up. There are currently seven states with functioning agricultural hotlines, and those states see a lower rate of suicide among rural residents.
Hotlines provide farmers an easy, discreet way to seek help, be it legal, financial or emotional. Griffin believes by having an open line to these services, farmers can find relief from hopelessness or depression caused by financial or legal woes — therefore helping to prevent suicide.
“I would much rather be talking to people about depression and hopelessness, that’s why I put the focus on legal and financial services,” Griffin said. “If someone is thinking about suicide, they need to talk to someone about that, but I think we can offer assistance before it gets to that point.”
The farm crisis of the ‘80s was the worst agricultural recession since the Great Depression, and while we aren’t there now, farmers have faced low prices, the worst drought in over 100 years and more.
Farm income has declined more than 50 percent since 2013.
In Kansas, which does not currently have a helpline for farmers and ranchers, Griffin recommends a few options for anyone questioning their situation or feeling worried about the future of their family and business.
“Anyone worried about their situation that doesn’t know where to go should walk into their Extension office,” Griffin said.
Extension agents are often a familiar face to farm families and can offer to recommend services.
On the financial side, Griffin said the Kansas Farm Management Association can provide analysis. He said KAMS is also a good first point of contact.
“KAMS has a toll-free number and can make a general assessment at no cost,” Griffin said. “They can also refer people to financial and legal assistance at low costs.”
But one thing KAMS still does not have is mental health resources. For those services, KAMS often refers people to community mental health centers — which are also under funding stress.
“Going to a community mental health center or a trained counselor is a big step for people to take, but it’s important to talk to somebody who can offer support,” Griffin said. “Those services are very busy right now. It would be nice to see increased resources.”
Resources on the agricultural side may see an increase at the federal level. Some U.S. legislators have pushed for agriculture mental health services funds, and the U.S. House version of the 2018 Farm Bill — though voted down last month — included funds to reinstate the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network. FRSAN was authorized as part of the 2008 Farm Bill but never funded.
The new legislation was sponsored by representatives Tom Emmer, R-Minn., and Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and co-sponsored by 14 legislators from both parties.
The Senate Agriculture Committee released the text of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 June 8. The draft of the Senate's farm bill also includes FRSAN. A senior committee aid said with the current state of commodity prices and the economy, the committee pushed for FRSAN's inclusion in the bill. If funded, FRSAN would make competitive grants for the creation of cooperative services on the state level. Grants would allow states to establish farm helplines and websites, support groups, outreach services and more.
Griffin believes the push for agricultural mental health services will play a role over the next few years.
“I think we’ll see a number of producers’ associations producing resources, educational pieces and bringing attention to this at the federal level for placement into the next farm bill,” Griffin said. “Over the next few years, these discussions are going to be very important.”
Blaske is hoping to be a part of those conversations in his own way.
Even though he’s hit a bit of writer’s block, he wants to continue with his notebooks and hopes to find someone to help him with organization and editing to turn the piece into a book. He knows first-hand that farmers are very self-sufficient, and often don't want to bother others with their problems, but he also knows what a burden a secret like his can be.
If he can’t publish the book, he said he at least would like to speak to farmers.
“I want to go talk to farmers. I want to do that in the worst way,” he said. “I want to let them know how I really feel, because I’m sure there are people out there that have the same kind of feelings I do, but they are afraid to talk about it. They’ve got problems and they don’t want anybody else to know about it.”