Mental health struggles are more common among farmers, ranchers and those in agriculture than what is often shared – or talked about.
Laurie Toepke is hoping to change that by sharing her dad’s story. In February of 2023, Toepke’s dad, Martin Heggedal, who was struggling with mental health issues, died by suicide.
“What his loved ones and I kept repeating was that we never saw this coming,” she said.
Heggedal was well-known in the agriculture community for his sense of humor and can-do attitude. He grew up helping his family farm in Roseau, Minnesota, and continued to help at the farm throughout his life while also working in agricultural sales.
“He got to know a lot of farmers across North Dakota and Minnesota,” she said. “He loved being able to go out to visit with them and help them in any way he could.”
Like many others, Toepke’s dad felt the strain that comes with the unpredictability of agriculture and farming. The last few years had been especially difficult with weather events and supply chain issues after the pandemic.
“I think that stress had started to build up in the last few months,” Toepke said.
The stigma around mental health
The week before Heggedal died, he shared that he was struggling with insomnia, depression and anxiety.
“He did the right thing by sharing his struggles with our family and with his health team, but he omitted the more serious symptoms he was most likely experiencing,” Toepke said. “Fear of mental health stigma may have prevented him from sharing more.”
Farmers, and those who work in agriculture, often face added stigma because they are expected to weather the storm or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
“They think they have to keep it private and just try to push through it alone,” Toepke said.
Some may also avoid sharing because they don’t want to worry others or they’re afraid of how others might react.
“Suicidal thoughts are really common and often they are more passive. It could be subtle thoughts like, ‘I’d rather not wake up,’” she described. “But people also experience thoughts like, ‘I want to kill myself.’ And if they think they’re alone in that or something is wrong with them, it can prevent them from being open and honest.”
Starting a conversation
Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the U.S., and more than one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness.
Increasing awareness and starting conversations about mental health can help reduce stigma. This can look like encouraging others to share what they’re going through and what’s causing them stress.
The REACH method can also help family members, friends and neighbors feel better equipped to support someone who may be at risk for suicide:
- Recognize a need by looking for changes in how someone looks, acts or speaks.
- Ensure they’re safe by removing physical dangers and also helping them feel comfortable to share what they’re going through.
- Actively listen by giving them your full attention.
- Connect them to support and resources.
- Help them as needed by checking in and letting them know you care.
“If you are struggling with your mood or your sleep or having scary thoughts of hurting yourself or others, the only way you can get help is if you tell people exactly what’s going on,” Toepke said. “There are options and resources that are really helpful for those situations.”
Rural mental health support
As an integrated health therapist at Sanford Health in Fargo, Toepke helps others who are struggling with mental health concerns and having suicidal thoughts.
Earlier in her career she was a behavioral health specialist in the U.S. Army and led suicide prevention briefings to military units across the U.S. and in deployment settings. But none of these experiences could have prepared her for her dad’s death.
“He loved life so much,” she said.
Today, Toepke shares her dad’s story because of his passion for farming and helping farmers, something she now calls upon others to do too.
“Let’s support farmers in a way that we haven’t before, by increasing mental health awareness and support.”
Learn about suicide risk factors, warning signs and resources to help someone who may be at risk. If you or someone you know is experiencing a crisis, call or text 988.
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