Dealing with major depression is a serious challenge to individuals and families in agriculture.  

The preceding two Farm and Ranch Life columns explained how depression and suicide often occur among agricultural people and how exposures to certain agricultural pesticides contribute to these problems.

Five factors were identified as contributors to the occurrence of depression among people involved in agriculture: 1) holding another job besides farming, 2) severe stress, especially if it poses an economic threat to the farm operation, 3) a farming-related injury, 4) pesticides that overly activate the nervous system and 5) the inherited drive to farm successfully, also called the agrarian imperative.

Today’s column concentrates on what farmers and their loved ones can do to help themselves and others deal with depression.

Managing depression sometimes means doing things we don’t feel like doing at the time, but after we undertake them we feel better.  For instance, when we feel depressed we want to avoid social interactions and retreat into seclusion, but after socializing enthusiastically for a while we begin to feel like we are behaving–no longer self-absorbed and now able to think positively.

Persons who are depressed need to make themselves engage in healthy behaviors, including the following, for these activities are protective measures and/or are beneficial producers of serotonin, norepinepherine and oxytocin, while maintaining a moderate level of cortisol:

  • Prevent exposures to harmful chemicals that are known to overly stimulate the nervous system and which can eventually lead to depression, by using personal protective equipment such as gloves that are impervious to fluids, masks, air filtering systems and other forms of protection when handling toxic pesticides
  • Exercise vigorously for at least a half hour daily, preferably in outdoor sunshine or in front of a grow light that replicates sunlight
  • Recreate by undertaking activities that usually are enjoyable, such as favorite hobbies, dancing, playing a musical instrument or doing something creative, like artwork or making things
  • Work enough to make gainful progress, but not so much as to add to weariness; completing planned projects without overworking adds to personal satisfaction and healthy physiological chemistry
  • Obtaining physical comfort through human touches, such as massage, chiropractic manipulation, backrubs, stroking hands, arms and exchanging hugs with loved ones
  • Playing with pets that reciprocate affection, such as cats, dogs and any animals that nuzzle, rub or touch to display their affiliation
  • Contemplating, praying, singing, meditating or similar activities that involve emotional and mental focus
  • Undertake restorative healing practices such as the religious ceremonies of reconciliation, religious retreats, Native American sweats, or whatever promotes one’s spiritual growth
  • Laughing heartily at something that is so genuinely funny it brings tears of pleasure, such as by interacting with fun-loving friends, watching a comedy show or reading something hilarious
  • Taking over-the-counter vitamins and nutritional supplements in appropriate amounts; this is important, for accumulating too much of some substances that are thought to be healthy can harm one’s wellbeing; check first with a physician about the interaction of dietary supplements with prescribed medications
  • Take prescribed medications that counter depression, such as antidepressants that enhance serotonin, norepinepherine and relaxation, but be careful to make sure any prescribed medications do not increase overstimulation of the nervous system due to pesticide exposure
  • Manage sleep to experience at least three episodes of deep sleep with active dreaming per night totaling seven or more hours

Keeping an account of sleep is especially important.  Lack of restorative sleep for two or more nights (about 60 hours, but less as people age) can seriously erode clear thinking, judgment, feelings of well-being and health in general.  

Sleep deprivation has been used to “break down” prisoners of war.  Terrorists use it to torture captives.

Farmers who report sleep deprivation are prone to injuries, illnesses, faulty reasoning and self-recrimination.  Sleep deprived persons report thoughts of ending their lives to find peace.   

Remember, most insecticides overly activate both insect and human victims, making sleep difficult, and essential to monitor in anyone exposed to insecticides.

Healthy activities help most depressed farm people deal with stress, prevent injuries and farm chemical exposures.  

However, severely sleep-deprived individuals who are engaged in negative thinking should immediately undergo medical evaluation, whether arranged by a family member or the patient.

It can be too late when a loved one who is severely sleep deprived, especially if exposed to farm chemicals that increase the overstimulation of the nervous system says, “I’ll make an appointment tomorrow.”

Immediate action is required, because morbid thoughts, such as escaping torment by impulsively ending one’s life and figuring out how to turn self-imposed death into a sacrificial act that benefits survivors, may enter the depressed and sleep-deprived farmer’s deliberations.

Family members should not ignore these warning signals.  Don’t quit trying to help the depressed person experiencing discomfort; take action quickly to seek help.

More research is still needed.  Depression and suicide among farmers can be prevented if we know enough. 

Next week’s article will look further at managing behavior productively, especially our agrarian urges.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: