Speaker focuses in on suicide prevention

Ryan Fitzmaurice

Those in agriculture can be especially at risk, but the truths in Darla Tyler-McSherry’s talk to the Rocky Mountain FFA Thursday night are universal. The group met Thursday night to discuss a topic not often associated with farming -- mental illness and suicide. 

Yet, Tyler-McSherry said, the risk factors that are common in the struggle are especially exacerbated in the stubbornly independent and often isolated farming lifestyle. On Thursday night, the FFA learned about misconceptions about
suicide, the warning signs and how they can step in to help someone in crisis.

“I recently thought that suicide was this horrible, awful, tragic experience that happened to other people,” Tyler-McSherry said. “That all changed for me.” 

In 2016, when health problems left her father unable to harvest after seven decades in a row at the plow as a
Montana wheat farmer, her own father committed
suicide, followed by other difficult family tragedies.

The ramifications left Tyler-McSherry also struggling with a deep depression, making her intimately aware of the experience her father went through.

“I spent days, I spent weeks, I spent months trying to decide if I wanted to be alive or not. I had a lot of doubts about if I wanted to continue to live,” she said. “Thankfully, I got connected with a really good mental health therapist. I went on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs, and I’ve been able to be off those and my point in sharing that with you is that statistically we know someone that might be feeling that way, or you yourself might be feeling that way. 

“My point to you is that it does get better, and if you’re feeling that low, there is help available and you don’t have to feel that rotten.” 

Her father’s death was not unforeseeable. Farming and agriculture has the highest rate of suicide for occupations in the U.S., Tyler-McSherry said, citing a 2020 CDC report.

Suicide rates are also 45 percent higher in rural areas compared to urban areas, meaning that, even if not in agriculture, those living in rural farming communities are also at increased risk.

Tyler-McSherry references a recent concept in psychology called the Agrarian Imperative to highlight why the strengths of those who farm also put them at that increased risk. The imperative states that, due to farming being needed for human survival, the need to acquire land, cultivate it and produce is encoded within humans’ genetic material.

“The Agrarian Imperative instills farmers to work incredibly hard, to tolerate unusual pain and adversity, to trust their own judgement and take uncommon risk,” Tyler-McSherry said. “That’s what makes you a successful farmer … but what makes you good at farming and ranching places you at risk, because you are so used to going at it alone and tolerating pain and adversity, it works against you.”

For farmers like her father, their worth becomes tightly tied into the act of farming, leaving them unable to find purpose and meaning outside of it.

“I think that’s what happened with my dad,” Tyler-McSherry said. “Looking back, I can hear my father saying to himself, ‘I can’t be out there farming, so what good am I?”’

Other risk factors are less academic. A lack of work-life balance often places farmers at risk, with them being literally unable to leave their worksite, as they live there, as well.

Economics play a large factor. As inflation continues to rise and income remains, in relation, stagnant, it becomes more difficult to gain a profit.

Farms are often isolated. Wyoming, in particular, is the least population-dense state outside of Alaska. With the average density in a U.S. State being 88 people in a square mile, Wyoming has six per square mile
and currently has the highest rate of suicide in the union.

Farmers and ranchers are more likely to have an undiagnosed mental illness, as they are less likely to speak up about their troubles, Tyler-McSherry said. Up to 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an undiagnosed and untreated condition at the time of their death.

“It’s the stigma, fear or apprehension of worry of how people might perceive mental health issues,” Tyler-McSherry said. 

Tyler-McSherry shared a number of harmful myths about suicide that further complicate the issue. 

Contrary to myth, Tyler-McSherry said, suicide does not happen without warning, with 80 percent of cases displaying warning signs that
were missed.

Another important myth is that suicide is a selfish act done by people taking the easy way out. 

“In reality, their judgement, their ability to be rational, is clouded by such a filter of pain they cannot make rational, well-thought-out decisions,” Tyler-McSherry said. 

A third myth presented is that talking about suicide causes it. There is no correlation between discussing suicide and its happening, but that talk can often serve to prevent it, Tyler-McSherry said. It’s critical that the
talk is had, and that the person struggling is connected with resources that can help. 

The final myth spoken about was that strong people don’t kill themselves. Rather, it’s the strength shown by farmers and ranchers that can often lead them deeper into despair.

“Suck it up, cowboy up, rub some dirt on it and soldier on. That might work for other situations, but it doesn’t work for mental health and suicide,” McSherry said. 

There are various warning signs to look out for. Those struggling will also speak about the fear of being a burden, express a loss of hope, the inability to see a future of themselves. Those struggling may seem depressed, angry or withdrawn, but a sudden drastic improvement in mood  can also be an urgent warning sign. 

“What may actually be going on is that they are struggling with the idea of whether or not to stay alive, and they have decided that they are not going to and they are going to take their own life,” Tyler-McSherry said. “What may look like happiness is actually a sense of relief.”

Tyler-McSherry encouraged those attending to be more aware of their friends, listen for language that might present risk, be aware of related phenomena, such as trouble sleeping or loss of interest, and being willing to directly approach the topic with those at risk.

“I’m worried about you. Are you thinking about suicide?” Tyler-McSherry said. “(That language) is much more open and will allow (those struggling) to trust and be open in talking about the situation.”

The presence of a plan often means that it is a pressing matter that the person at risk receive help.

The process of suicide can be quick and stark, meaning that urgency is often appropriate.

“Research has shown that people who have attempted to take their own life … 75 percent of people will attempt to take their own life an hour after making that decision,” Tyler-McSherry said. “We need to act quickly.”

In Wyoming, two out of three suicides involve firearms. Approaching a struggling person and asking to hold on to weapons they have until they feel better can often relieve the burden those suffering feel and greatly increase their chances of making it through.

“This is not a conversation about gun control,” Tyler-McSherry said. “This is a conversation about saving lives.”

Communicating with others and involving others is also essential.

“This is way too big to take on by yourself, so get other people involved,” Tyler-McSherry said. “It might be a friend, it might be a parent, it might be a teacher, it might be a spouse. There’s no reason to not get others involved to keep a friend alive.”

Crisis lines are available, with anyone facing the issue able to call or text “start” or “go” to 988. There are also resources that will allow one to chat online with those who can give guidance.

“I used to think that crisis lines were just for the person having the crisis themselves,” Tyler-McSherry said. “If I’m really worried about someone and I don’t know what to do, I can call 988 and a trained person can help give (me) concrete strategies about what to do.” 

Other programs such as gatekeeper training and question, persuade and refer training (QPR) can also give one many tools.

“It’s really normal for people to get trained in CPR,” Tyler-McSherry said. “Let’s have that approach toward QPR.”

Action steps one can take themselves to lower their own risk, Tyler-McSherry shared, are as common as eating healthy, drinking enough water, exercising regularly, having healthy stress-management and expressing and feeling gratitude. 

“If you only remember one thing from this presentation, I hope you remember this: ask in earnest.  You may save a life,” Tyler-McSherry said.