This article contains topics related to mental health, depression, suicide, alcoholism, rape, and eating disorders. If any of these topics impact you at any point, for immediate assistance please call The National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK or a trusted source. Other resources are listed at the end of the article.
GREEN COUNTY — Weathering the dust and dirt as acres of land erode away into malls and factory plants, as market values drop and weather is unfavorable, the farmer stays resilient. Every day farmers are asked to make choices, what may even feel like guesses, with variables that are not even known. They are asked to assume the weather months ahead, determine the best actions to take to prevent injuries and promote growth, and examine how to fix thousand-dollar machinery. Farming may be the only profession where you are required to be a biologist, agronomist, chemist, mechanic, veterinarian, epidemiologist, geneticists, businessman, and human resource personnel all rolled into one.
When problems arise, even the extraordinary ones that to anyone else seem unsolvable, farmers are resourceful and adaptive. They rely on their experience and knowledge to fix the impossible. What happens when there is no solution, when the problems begin to mount, when the outwards issues become an inside torment?
According to the National Farm Bureau, 66% of farmers say COVID-19 has negatively impacted their mental health. Farmers were 10% more likely to say they’ve experienced more negative feelings than the average rural adult. Despite working alone for long periods of time, social isolation was believed to increase impact on mental health by 22% for farming individuals.
Stress is a silent killer. It’s easy enough to create and everyone has their own stressors, pressure points and individual limits. Falling milk prices, equipment breakdowns, or long hours that limit sleep can increase stress level and produce the hormone cortisol which primes the body for action.
Chronic stress and high levels of cortisol can change the size, shape, and pathways of the brain, in turn changing how the brain functions. The loss of pathways can create difficulties in daily aspects of memory, focus, social interaction and decision making. It can even create changes in genes which may be passed down through generations, priming other disorders such as anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Unhealthy coping mechanisms can lead to other negative impacts on oneself and those around.
Born into it
“I never wanted anything to do with farming,” Brooke Paulson said.
For years, Brooke watched the ag industry tear her family apart piece by piece. Brooke has been around farming in some capacity her whole life. She watched her father work on the family farm in the day and go to his second shift later that night; she heard the arguments between her parents, between her extended family; she smelt the alcohol on her loved ones' breath and felt the shared despair as he sold the family farm.
“Members of my family turned away from each other and toward alcohol,” Brooke said. “It was normal. People don’t take time to heal. They want to numb their problems and self-medicate.”
Brooke decided early on to leave farming behind her, but returned to the life after she married her first husband just months into entering college. As time went on, Brooke was left to care for their two children because her farming husband was rarely home.
“It was really isolating,” Brooke said.
The pair’s relationship started spiraling, and it turned out was extremely unhealthy for Brooke. She said she felt there was very little she had any control over, or any say in. She had really lost her identity. “I took control of the only thing I could, my eating,” Brooke said. “I became anorexic, and that eventually developed into Bulimia.”
Brooke eventually began drinking as well.
“I was a functioning alcoholic for sure,” Brooke said, “basically from the time I began drinking until a couple years ago. In regards to both my eating disorder and drinking, if people would ask, I would just say, ‘I’m fine’. I had to be fine. If I wasn’t …” she said, trailing off.
During the dissolution of her first marriage, it was threatened her children would be taken away from her because she was “crazy”. She felt helpless, but also felt she had to keep up the façade that she was in control. Her eating disorder and closet drinking remained her constant companion and crutch for years.
Continuing to slip further, and remaining in a constant state of denial about the negative impact her coping mechanism had on her and her limited support system, there was a light shining in the darkness. Brooke and her high school sweetheart Justin “JP” Paulson, reunited, had a son, and got married. JP is a fourth-generation farmer and runs his own ag repair shop. Together JP and Brooke are now proud to own and operate Paulson Grass Fed Beef.
“Farming can be amazing if you are in it with the right people,” Brooke said. “JP and I truly support one another and have the same vision for what we want this endeavor to provide for not only us and our family, but for others. I think that’s what it should be about.”
This support and new perspective, in addition to gaining clarity from sobriety, has been integral in Brooke’s wellness. There are still obstacles the Paulson family strive to overcome. As an untraditional grass-fed farm, Brooke has had many individuals say she is not a real farmer or tell her that her pathway is wrong.
“There are pockets within the farming community that are very averse to a different way of doing things, and to be quite frank, not all people in smaller farming communities are happy for any successes that their neighbors may have.” Brooke said. “It’s very isolating at times to not be accepted just because we go about our cattle a different way.”
Brooke enjoys working with her animals because they don’t judge. Cows are appreciative and give unconditional love, she said. Her adopted rescue pets are practically caretakers for people. This support has stretched into other areas of her life.
“It helps so much knowing where your food is coming from,” Brooke said. “For me managing my eating disorder, I was able to take part of my life back.”
Brooke’s anorexia and sobriety are still ongoing battles.
“Out of my alcoholism, my eating disorder and my depression, it was my depression that was the hardest to admit,” Brooke said. “People don’t see it. You don’t wear it on your body; suffer in silence.”
Brooke is continuing to strengthen her mental health by searching for professional help.
“The mental health system is broken,” Brooke said. “It is so hard to get appointments and online availability does not take insurance.”
For now, Brooke preserves her mental strength by taking time to do things she enjoys. The Paulson Grass Fed Beef farm donates beef every month to local organizations such as school backpacks, Big Brothers, Big Sisters and individual families.
“It’s like helping myself by helping others,” Brooke said. “A little mental release.”
Brooke has become an advocate for mental health and speaks often about her struggles with alcoholism and eating disorders.
“All people deserve a voice,” Brooke said. “I’ve been so alone for so many years. It makes us who we are. Our purpose is to serve others.”
Brooke tries to help others by speaking about the unaddressed issues that affect the people of the community. One of the ways she does so is by showing her support of the Black Live Matter movement.
“People will destroy my signs,” Brooke said. “I’ve had people drive by and throw glass bottles at my house when my child is outside. I go for a run quite often and I take my dog with me just in case. … I’m proud to be an active voice and speak up, but it can be very isolating. There’s a bigger picture people just don’t always see.”
Farmer, mental health activist, person with depression, hairdresser, social justice activist, person recovering from anorexia, mother, person recovering from alcoholism, wife… none of these fully describe the being of Brooke Paulson. She has many facets of her identity, both positive and negative, choosing to not limit herself to only one.
“No one is super human. Show yourself some grace. You are not alone.”
‘Farming gave me this healing’
The leaves change colors and the crisp wind rustles through the soon to be naked branches. The morning dew sets on the crumpled leaves on the forest floor as the tranquil sun begins to rise further into the sky. In acres of dense woods with hardly a sound, veteran Betty Anderson walks with her .357 in her pocket.
She’s a 12 year Navy veteran who served back when only 7% of the enlisted were women. In the early days, walking in the woods on her 40 acre farm she felt vulnerable, the large area and dense brush surrounded by broken fences seemed indefensible.
While Betty was serving in Japan she was raped by two men while her husband was out getting food. She was found in the street by Shore Patrol and taken to the hospital. Her husband told her in the hospital if she couldn’t quit crying they were considering moving her to the psych ward.
“So I did,” Betty said.
Aside from her husband, family and NCIS, the only other person who knew about it was her commanding officer.
“She understood,” Betty said. “She had her own horror story. Almost every woman who’s served has one. This was mine.”
In her forties, Betty’s life began to unravel.
“I knew I was depressed, but PTSD wasn’t really a thing then, I mean, I didn’t see combat. I never really talked about being raped, just sort of crammed it down and went about my life. Stuff like that doesn’t stay quiet forever though, it bubbles up and kind of erupts.”
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was only recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. Prior to that, it was known as “shell shock” during World War I and a variation of “psychiatric collapse,” “combat fatigue,” or “war neurosis” during World War II. Today PTSD has been more encompassing on the stress inducing event and the symptoms of such.
Betty’ PTSD was triggered when she was helping out a co-worker who was being abused by her husband.
“I isolated a lot in those days. I would take long walks, always looking around for a weapon of some sort, a rock, a stick, whatever. I didn’t feel safe anywhere. It wasn’t until I had a health crisis and had no insurance that I found I qualified for care at the VA. I got the physical care I needed and when I had healed from the surgery my doctor gently suggested that I talk with someone about my mental health. They recognize PTSD at the VA,” Betty chuckled.
Betty entered some therapeutic programs including writing activities and speaking with a therapist. Within a year, Betty had begun to ease her PTSD symptoms and got remarried. The pair moved out to his family farm.
“Farming here, working with the livestock gave me a healing I didn’t know I still needed,” Betty said. “Everything has a purpose. It’s a very nurturing food cycle.”
Betty continues to find the balance in her life between keeping busy and taking time for herself. She works with others as a resource to improve their mental health but sets boundaries to maintain her own.
“I take my story out a couple times a year now, dust it off, share on social media and other places,” Betty said. “The temptation is to hide, feel shame for things thst aren’t your fault, like somehow you deserved it. I find that sharing my story helps others to feel its ok to talk about it. Nothing is off the table.”
Betty hopes to one day build out a commercial kitchen on their property that is handicapped accessible. She makes gourmet jams, jellies and pickles from the produce raised on their farm. I’d like to expand my business and create a healing workplace for others with mental or physical disabilities as well.”
Chris Frakes remembers the impact of the 1980s farming crisis in Iowa. Members of her community began acting on suicidal thoughts. Her uncles almost lost their family farm. As the director of Farm Well Wisconsin, a service of the Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program, Frakes recognized the necessity to improve mental health within the farming community.
In 2018, the organization started a pilot program in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Extension. During a monthly speakers series, farmers learned strategies to address the financial and emotional stressors in their lives. The Farm Well Wisconsin program emerged from that pilot and offers monthly workshops focused on community mental health: The Water We Swim In, COMET, and safeTALK.
Other available resources
The Water We Swim In
● Through story sharing and reflection the often invisible forces of culture that can negatively impact our physical and emotional health are brought to light. These community conversations help foster networks of support.
COMET (Changing Emotion and Mental Trajectory)
● Offers a structured way to begin conversations with neighbors and colleagues in vulnerable spaces, with the aim of helping people avoid a crisis. One person matters. The workshop is scheduled regularly; both virtual and in person options exist.
Safe Talk (Suicide Awareness)
● Helps community members develop the skills to make our communities suicide safer by teaching them to recognize when someone might be struggling with thoughts of suicide and how to connect that person to the assistance they need to stay safe.
On the UW Extension’s Resilient Farms & Families website there are resources and information that support farmers. The Farm Center (DATCP) also has numerous resources to support farmer wellbeing through their Farmer Wellness Program. These include assistance in financial aid, legal information, job counseling and meeting basic needs. The programs also teach about stress management, communication improvement and support network building.
Specifically to understand farming needs, the Farm Center created a hotline (1-888-901-2558) for farmers in need of someone who can listen and help provide resources with a background in farming. The center also works to connect farmers with support groups, counseling services and funding for speaking with professionals.
Current research is underway in the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN). They are examining a pilot program for training mental and medical personnel on farm stressors and barriers of care. The goal is to implement the training directly into medical students training in school in order to take the knowledge with them wherever they go.
Green County’s own have created numerous organizations geared to helping decrease mental health stigma and give support. Jeff Ditzenberger created an organization, T.U.G.S (Talking. Understanding. Growing. Supporting), to help bring mental health in farming to light after his own struggles with suicide.
“Every big ship needs a little tug boat to bring them into safety,” Ditzenberger said.
The Jacob SWAG Foundation of Monroe has created an app that allows for one touch access to hotlines and support groups made of family and friends. It also has features to teach healthy coping mechanisms for anxiety and depression.
When the whispering winds and babbling brooks don’t lend the same ear as they used to, each resource emphasized to farmers a singular theme: You are not alone. Someone is there waiting to listen and help.