EP. 34 - Mental Health: Breaking the Stigma in the Agriculture World, with Lowell Neitzel and Dr. Heather Sedges

May 26, 2022

EP. 34 - Mental Health: Breaking the Stigma in the Agriculture World, with Lowell Neitzel and Dr. Heather Sedges

May 26, 2022

Author: Dusty Weis

With May designated as "Mental Health Awareness Month," a reminder that saying something can save lives.

 

Farmers work in a business where the finances keep getting tighter and the stakes keep getting higher.

 

That kind of pressure takes a toll. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate in the agriculture industry is nearly 10 points above the national average, and about one in four farmers struggle with mental health issues.

 

But mental health doesn’t typically get talked about a lot in the ag community.

 

So in this episode, we meet Lowell Neitzel, a grower from Kansas who’s trying to change that by sharing his personal story about mental health. Lowell also leads the NCGA Member and Consumer Engagement Action Team, which has targeted grower mental health as a priority.

 

Lowell is joined by Dr. Heather Sedges, an associate professor from the University of Tennessee who’s working to prioritize mental health resources for growers. Dr. Sedges serves as Principal Investigator and Lead of the USDA/NIFA-funded Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Southern Region. 

 

Together, they discuss how to change the conversation about mental health in rural America, what to do when a friend or loved one is in a mental health crisis, and how to create a one-stop-shop for mental health resources that growers can use to protect their own well-being.

 

 

Click here to watch Lowell's story on YouTube.

 

And here is the list of resources that Dr. Sedges references in this episode:

 

And here is a link to the Productivity Protocol that Dr. Sedges mentions.

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Part of the work we're doing in the Southern region is to educate mental health providers about farm issues and the stressors associated with it.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

The stigma that we're trying to break is just, if they feel like they're seen getting help by their neighbors or somebody in town, they're going to be the one getting talked about.

 

Dusty Weis:

Hello and welcome to Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association podcast. This is where leaders, growers, and stakeholders in the corn industry can turn for big-picture conversations about the state of the industry and its future. I'm Dusty Weis. I'll be introducing your host, Association CEO Jon Doggett. From the fields of the corn belt to the D.C. Beltway, we're making sure that the growers who feed America have a say in the issues that are important to them, with key leaders who are shaping the future of agriculture.

 

Dusty Weis:

Farmers work in a business where the finances keep getting tighter and the stakes keep getting higher. That kind of pressure takes a toll, but mental health isn't exactly getting talked about a lot in the ag community. In this episode, we meet Lowell Neitzel, a grower from Kansas who's tried to change that by sharing his personal story about mental health, and Dr. Heather Sedges, an associate professor from the University of Tennessee, who's working to prioritize mental health resources for growers.

 

Dusty Weis:

But if you haven't yet, make sure you're subscribed to this podcast in your favorite app. Also, make sure you follow the NCGA on Twitter @nationalcorn and sign up for the National Corn Growers Association newsletter at ncga.com. With that, it's time to once again introduce Jon. Jon Doggett, the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Jon, today, we're going to be talking about an important topic that's near and dear to my heart. Certainly, to yours as well.

 

Dusty Weis:

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate amongst the agriculture industry is nearly 10 points above the national average. With estimates that approximately one in four farmers struggles with mental health issues, the need in rural America ... It's serious. Corn Growers Association understands and wants to help those around farmers understand the resources that are available and the importance of supporting people that need help. And so, Jon, I hear one of NCGA's action teams has taken up this important topic and begun working with partners across the industry to spread the message that saying something could mean everything.

 

Jon Doggett:

Dusty, we all know firsthand about too many stories, and we've seen too many tragedies. And so, this is an important podcast and one that I've been looking forward for us to have. Because this is an important issue. Today, we have with us Lowell Neitzel. Lowell farms as part of a fourth-generation family farm outside of Lawrence, Kansas. He's also the chairman of the NCGA Member and Consumer Engagement Action Team.

 

Jon Doggett:

The neat thing about Lowell is he shares his personal story as an advocate for mental health awareness and support in rural communities. I'm really looking forward to having a conversation with him and hearing part of his story on this podcast. And then, we have Dr. Heather Sedges. She is an associate professor and human development specialist in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.

 

Jon Doggett:

Dr. Sedges serves as the principal investigator and lead of the USDA NIFA-funded Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Southern region. Dr. Sedges is a multi-award winning scholar whose work focuses on community-engaged, culturally relevant, and systems-based approach to improving quality of life in rural America. Both of you, thank you so much for being on the podcast. Lowell, we're going to turn to you first. Tell us a little. How did you come to be passionate about this issue?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I grew up in a pretty rural community. Not a lot of sources for getting help. I watched my dad struggle for years with ongoing mental health issues. Really never did get the help that he really needed. He just kind of let himself go. Long story short, I feel like mental health played a huge role in his demise and a fairly early death. He died when he was about 68.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

That took a real big toll on me. Me and my father weren't real close there, at the end. I didn't think his passing would take such a huge toll on me, but it sure did. And I have a really strong group around me. My wife gave me the, "Come to Jesus," talk and said I needed to go get some help. I love her for it. And I've been going strong ever since.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I do have my days. Everybody has their days, but I'm in a really good spot right now. And I'm happy to be an advocate for mental health. By me telling my story, I've had so many great conversations with people that I don't even know from all over the country. It's pretty awesome that people feel comfortable with me. They just come up to me and just start talking. And that's why we're here. We're just starting that conversation.

 

Jon Doggett:

Well, we're going to come back a little bit more to your story in a minute. But in the meantime, Heather, can you tell us about the USDA NIFA-funded Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Southern region? That is a mouthful of a title.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Thank you so much for having me here today and congratulations on saying all of those words in order. The good news I'm happy to report is that, starting in August this year, we'll actually be renaming and rebranding to a much more pronounceable moniker. Looking forward to sharing that in the coming months here.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

But our region in the South is really privileged to work across our 15 states and US territories ranging from Texas all the way up to Kentucky and down and back around all the way through Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. We're really working to address the root causes of stress. There's power in knowing what we don't know.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

To that end, that's why we're working with organizations like NCGA and other groups like IAC, Intertribal Ag Council, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. Or RAFI. You name it. We're trying to reach out to lots of different groups who have lots of different experiences and perspectives, so that we can have as tightly-woven of a net to catch people as possible.

 

Dusty Weis:

Heather and Lowell, I've got to say farm culture is an incredible thing. One thing that's always been incredible about it to me is the idea that there's nothing that you can't accomplish with enough hard work and determination. But along with that, comes this notion that pain is just a thing that you ignore or you power through.

 

Dusty Weis:

You rub some dirt on it. You get back out there and you get to work. That's all well and good if that's just physical pain sometimes. But when we're talking about pain on the inside, that mentality can do more harm than good. Right, Dr. Sedges?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

It actually changes your brain. We know through years of studies that when we are under long-term stress, which is what farmers deal with ... They're dealing with unpredictable elements. Whether it be the weather, economy, family issues, community issues. All of that. Herd health, crop health. Those are all variables that are changing all of the time. And that is stressful. What we call that kind of stress is chronic stress.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

And then, for farmers and ranchers and people in the ag world, what they deal with are layers of episodic ... Things that just happen in the moment that you don't expect. Acute stressors. Think about a natural disaster. Or perhaps a fertilizer issue like we're facing right now. Or a drought. What we have when we have chronic stress partnered with acute stressors is actual change in the brain. Because of the cortisol that's being released in our body.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Because ultimately, we're creatures of evolution. Years ago, when a bear would chase after us ... Or actually, if a bear chased after us today, our cortisol system would go into hyperactive mode. We'd go into fight or flight mode. That's when our brain would just tell us to shut down and react and to find any soothing source that we can so that we can perceive safety. Our brain doesn't know how to differentiate between a bear chasing us or a fertilizer shortage or supply chain issue. Or not being able to find a meat processor in time.

 

Dusty Weis:

Lowell, was there a moment in your personal story when you had that realization? Where you realized, "Oh my God. It feels like there's a bear chasing me." How did you work through that personally?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I was always pretty goal-oriented. When I woke up in the morning, "I'm going to try to get this many acres covered," if I was planting. Or, "I'm going to try to get this many bales bailed," if I was running the round bailer. And if I had a breakdown or a weather event, I just felt like the whole world was going to come to an end. Just because I didn't reach my goal for the day.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

That took huge toll on me. It'd be something I worried about for the rest of the week or couple of weeks. "Man, if I'd have been able to get that a hundred acres, I'd be done with this already. I missed out because I broke down or the rain got me." It's been those little things that I've had to try to figure out that ... It's okay that I don't get everything done in one day that I think I need to get done.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I was lucky to have a really good therapist to help me get the stuff I needed. We even talked about getting me some medication. And I talked with some friends that were on some medication. They told me that it's made a world of difference in their life. With their confidence and their backing, I was willing to give it a try. And it's made a world of difference in my life.

 

Jon Doggett:

I'm from Montana and we have, unfortunately, a very high rate of suicide. One of the many factors that are part of that is the lack of mental health professionals in rural communities. Lowell, you've talked about therapy and I've done that as well. What kind of stigma is there still? I'm going to ask Lowell, you first, and I'm going to ask Heather, you second. What kind of stigma is there about therapy and how do we overcome some of that?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

Good question. That's one I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around a little bit. My generation and the generation younger than me, I think they're okay with talking. They've probably seen their families and their parents struggle from time to time. A lot of them don't want to go through those struggles, and they think it's okay to talk.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

Because probably they've seen people in their life like me talk about it. They're okay with talking about it. Or they're willing to go get help. Because this younger generation is wired a little different than the rest of the farming community, I feel. I feel like they're open to a lot more things. They're willing to do things that the older generation isn't.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

The stigma that we're trying to break is just, I feel like a lot of them ... If they feel like they're seen getting help by their neighbors or somebody in town, they're going to be the one getting talked about. "So-and-so was at the doctor's office today. I wonder what's wrong with him? He must not be feeling good. Or he might not be feeling all right." In a little town, gossip is everything. And so, we don't want to be the center of the gossip. For sure.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

Another thing. This older generation, my grandparents, my parents taught me that we're tough as nails. You're not supposed to worry about getting help. You sit in the tractor and you think about it and you get through it. Well, you sit in the tractor and you think about it. Sometimes you get in that rabbit hole and there's no getting out of it. It's just a crazy thing to think. We just need to get rid of that stigma. It's okay to go get help.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Lowell, I have a little theory here. I think the reason that younger generations are increasingly more willing to talk about mental health and options to cope with stress are because of people like you, who are brave enough to be the leaders and to go out there and be vulnerable and talk about it. Big kudos to you for that.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

I really do. I think, over the past 30 years, we've seen a big difference, both in media and in interpersonal connections, in being able to be vulnerable and talking about issues that are unseen to so many. But I also think that a lot of times people don't always engage with what I like to call, "The tools in our toolbox."

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Those in the ag world, we all have tools in our toolbox. Whether it's a pair pliers or whether it is maybe going to talk to a therapist or taking medication. I think one of the reasons that we struggle with the stigma is really all about fear of the unknown. We're not sure what to expect. Are we going to walk in and be lying on a couch? Is somebody going to tell us all the things that are wrong with us?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Are we going to inadvertently increase our risk for someone to come in and say, "They're not running their farm in an effective manner." Or, "They're not able to manage their herd." That opens up a lot of vulnerabilities for farmers and ranchers. And so, really understanding the operating principles behind the stigma. What's causing that?

 

Jon Doggett:

The first time you go to a therapist is the hardest time. Or the first time you go to a 12-step meeting is the hardest one you'll ever go to. And so, it's getting beyond that initial fear of the unknown. I've thought sometimes we almost need a video of, "This is what it's like going the first time. It won't kill you."

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Lowell said something interesting earlier about the importance that his wife played in being supportive. I can't underscore the importance enough of having people who are supportive in your life. I have been able and honored and humbled to play that role for others, but also been the recipient of it.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

And it's as simple as saying, "Can I help you make a phone call? Let's do that right now in the moment." Really being ready to step into that space. Knowing that the answers are not all known and that's okay.

 

Jon Doggett:

Why are so many of us involved in agriculture, so many of us who are from rural areas ... Why is it that we're so afraid of taking care of ourselves? I said to a friend of mine a couple weeks ago, "I really wasn't feeling well and I took the afternoon off." And I said to her, "I feel kind of guilty about that."

 

Jon Doggett:

She said, "There you go. There's that country kid thing again about, "You're not going to take care of yourself." You're embarrassed that you didn't feel good, so you took the afternoon off?" How much of that is out there? How much of it is ... Lowell said we're tough. We're going to hang in there and just keep on going.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

It just goes back to that mentality. I watched grandma and grandpa and my mom and dad just fight tooth and nail to survive. They were out there when they were sick and out there at all times of the days and nights. Checking calves and doing all kinds of fun stuff like that. And so, I think that just translates into my mind that if I got a little tickle on my throat, I can't be at home sucking off cough drops.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I got to be at the farm doing what I know needs to get done. Even though I know my family's there at the farm and they're very capable of doing what I could be there doing. I could be at home getting healthier. Resting instead of maybe making everybody else sick. But it just goes back to that thing that we're hardwired with. It's just hard to get over sometimes.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

I'm going to be the nerd for a minute here. I'm going to cite some research. I'm particularly citing an article by Dr. Rosmann from 2010. And the title of the article is called The Agrarian Imperative. It was in the Journal of Agromedicine. In this article, he talked about the genetic precursors that are embedded in us and then pass through our generations.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

He uncovered this through genetic and anthropological evidence that suggests that acquiring territories of land ... And I'm quoting directly from the abstract here. That acquiring territories of land to produce necessities has an inherited basis that is encoded into our genetic material. What does this mean?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

I know that this means, for us, the way we're translating that is ... It's hard. If we are supposed to be producers, producing something, and that is not happening as effectively as we have conjured in our minds or pictured in our minds? Then, we have this innate tendency to think, "I'm not doing well. Something is wrong." It kicks in that whole notion of quote, "I am bad." Or, "I could do better."

 

Dusty Weis:

Heather, we've covered a lot of the micro so far on this of how this impacts individual people and some ways that they can begin to cope with that. You mentioned earlier the USDA NIFA-funded Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the Southern region. How is your organization and your affiliation with that working on this problem on the macro level?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Thank you so much for asking about that. And I appreciate that you actually mentioned the macro level. Because in the Southern region, what we're really focusing on is understanding and addressing the very root causes of farmer stress. Yes. We could create programs and fact sheets and webinars to address ways that farmers and ranchers and foresters too could be managing their stress.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

But what we're doing in addition to that is working upstream with partners to understand and mitigate the issues that are causing the stressors. This means engagement with risk management organizations. This means educating farm families about effective succession planning. Or crop health, herd health. Making sure that there are resources for farmers in a one-stop, easy to find place. What our region is working on right now is curating all those resources. Supports go to organizations. Into a place that someone can go to.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Particularly, if they're in crisis. For instance, answer one question on a website that says, "How are you doing today? What's on your mind?" The backend analytics or the backend database will then help them source through what kind of resources they need to be connected to. We're really working from a systems-level approach. We are engaging with organizations throughout the country, in addition to the Southern region, to focus on ways that we can mitigate those root causes of stress.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

We're doing that through a hotline that will be in collaboration with numerous partners at the national level that are farmers themselves. When you pick up that phone line, it's not just a random person that has no idea what's going on in farming or ag. It's someone who's been there done that. It's people who know the connections for loan remediation programs and can understand some of the very nuanced issues that go into that. It's also having this website that will be able to navigate people to the resources and communities of support that they need.

 

Jon Doggett:

I think that's an important thing that you just mentioned, Heather, that there is nuance to folks providing some of this assistance. What I hear from farmers as we moved into this space several years ago ... I heard over and over again, "Well, we've got to make sure that whoever's answering that phone on that hotline knows a little bit about agriculture." And that is important.

 

Jon Doggett:

I'm so glad to hear that more and more of those hotlines are available with skilled people that understand the mental health side, understand the need for help side, but also understand that ... February, March, for a lot of folks, they're calving. April, May, they're trying to get a crop in the ground. In the fall, they're trying to get one off the field. Those are important things to understand when you're having that conversation with somebody who is in a crisis.

 

Jon Doggett:

Yet, it might just not be that the mental health crisis is there. But in the meantime, they also got to check the heifers that night. How do you get all of that done? It is a very significant difference between our industry and others. Heather, where are we with having adequate mental health professionals in rural America? I know that answer here in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

 

Jon Doggett:

I have some good friends that are trying to get some mental health professionals for their child. They're having a heck of a time here in a reasonably affluent community. If we're having trouble finding mental health professionals in Northern Virginia ... How hard is it in rural America? What are we doing about it and what do we need to do about it? What action should we all be taking to support that? That's a multifaceted question.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

All right. Well, I'm glad I drank my coffee this morning. You're right. The availability of mental health providers in rural communities is very low. We know that. The good news is that, over the past couple of years, we've become more comfortable with online telehealth options. They've become increasingly reimbursable. Things like telehealth and connecting to therapeutic options online is really changing the face of available resources in rural communities.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

An important aspect to remember with signs and symptoms that we're looking for in our friends and family members are risk factors. One of the biggest risk factors is age. We know that 45% of farmers who unfortunately complete suicide are above the age of 65. Another risk factor is veteran status. We have so many farmers who have also served our country. We know that some of the risk factors that go along with returning increase our risk for contemplating suicide.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

We also want to take into consideration farmers in minority groups. Black farmers, latino farmers, indigenous farmers, women farmers. These are important groups, because they may not have as strong a sense of community around them. Pay attention to those risk factors. The other ways that we can be addressing this too are by educating people that are proximal to ag producers.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

That means individuals like your family doctor, faith-based organizations. Something that happened recently is that all FSA employees were trained in a mental health literacy program. When they're working with people on their loans, they're going to be able to be aware of the signs and symptoms that may be concerning and be able to route them to a tool in a toolbox that they can use.

 

Jon Doggett:

Lowell, how hard was it for you to find a mental health professional in your area when you were looking for one?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I'm pretty fortunate. I live in a pretty populated area, so I was able to find one fairly easily. The kicker was that I had to spend some of my session educating my provider about why stuff on the farm was stressing me out. She had grown up in kind of a rural area, but she was a city kid. She didn't really understand the nuances of farm life and working with family and what working multi-generations on one operation can do to a person.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

And so, it was frustrating on one hand and it was refreshing on the other hand. Because she had that separation. And so, she was able to give me stuff to look at from an outsider's perspective that I wasn't really looking at myself. And so, at the time, I was like, "I don't know if she's really helping me." But looking at it now, several years later, I feel like she did do me a big favor and a big service and gave me a lot of tools to put in my toolbox.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

That was just one of my many journeys with a therapist. And it's been a struggle to find somebody to know what's going on the ag side. But at the same time, I can work with the people that I need to get help from and make it work.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Lowell, you'll be heartened to know, I hope, that part of the work we're doing in the Southern region is to educate mental health providers about farm issues and the stressors associated with it. In fact, in early August, we're having a summit in Tennessee.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Specifically, to cross over the ag professionals with mental health professionals and help them understand each other's field and what's going on there. We're going to try to help with that, but we're going to still need people educating others as they go along.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

That's awesome.

 

Jon Doggett:

Heather, top thing on your wishlist that you think would do the most good for the most people the quickest. What would that be? Do we need more federal money? Do we need more state money? We can always throw taxpayer dollars at everything. That's kind of the way we do things in this country. But really, what's needed that policymakers need to do to address some of this?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

A couple of things. One, and I don't know that policymakers can do this, but we need more people like Lowell. We need people ready to step into that space and be open and know that the sky will not fall if you share what you are going through. In fact, it'll lift other people out of the darkness and you'll find a community that can be supportive to you. I think, number one, we need more people like that.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Second of all, we need it to be easy for people to access care. Whether that's broadband accessibility to enhance telehealth options. Or whether that's funding initiatives to get more providers out into communities. Or whether that's having some kind of certification program that can cross-train individuals that are already in a field adjacent to agriculture.

 

Jon Doggett:

My wife was in education for 31 years. She retired about five, six years ago. She still comes back to her old school district several weeks a year to fill in. It's part of a program that they have. One of the things she has noticed since the pandemic is just this surge of kids that need mental health help. She was really alarmed last fall when she was in our local school district.

 

Jon Doggett:

She said, "You finally get the kid ready to say, "Okay, I need some help." Then, you got to convince the kid's parents that the kid needs help. That's harder." And then, she saw too many times over just a short period of time that ... We finally got everybody ready to say, "This kid needs some help and they're willing to get some help." Now, we can't get help. There's a waiting list.

 

Jon Doggett:

What do you say to folks that are in a real difficult spot? They're running up against, "I can't find a provider. I can't do this." What do you tell them, Lowell, to get them through the next couple days until they can find somebody to help them find somebody?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

The one thing that I find that helps me when I get in a bad spot, and I don't think I have the time to run to the therapist, or get me scheduled on an appointment ... I call somebody that I talked with in the past. I talk with a lot of NCGA staff on almost a daily basis. They know me very well. I know them very well.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I can open up and I feel like I'm in a safe space. I have several friends that are usually in a tractor, just like I am. We have a lot of that in common. And so, sometimes I'll call, not knowing that I needed to talk. We just travel down that path. We talk about the kids, talk about the weather, talk about breakdowns. Talk about the older generation, why they're making us mad. Why can't they do this right? Why can't they do that right?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

But at the end of the day, we'll hang up, say our goodbyes and feel better. It's weird that we can connect with each other on so many different levels. At the end of the day, we feel so much better. Even though we're not professionals. We're just speaking what's on our mind and we're getting deep. Sometimes getting a little deep and a little in the weeds is okay.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

That's what we need to do. And it's okay. The one thing I really tell everybody is, "It's okay to not be okay." Just call that one guy or one gal or one person that has your back and that would do anything for you. It could be your mom and your dad, your aunt, your uncle. A former teacher. Or one of your best friends. Just call them. And if they don't answer, just keep calling them until they do answer. Then, just start unloading on them. They'll listen.

 

Jon Doggett:

I think I've heard that referred to as strength in your vulnerabilities.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

We're pack animals. We find safety in groups. When we can connect with other people, it actually releases endorphins in our brain in ways. When we find connection and an ability to feel safe. If someone's not able to access care immediately, I always say, "Just provide a splint." So if you fell and you broke your ankle, what are you going to do?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

You're not just going to drag it along. You're going to splint it. Right? Same thing with this. Find a splint. Whether it is watching something funny on TV, just to get your mind out of that space. Or whether it's just saying to someone, "Hey. I don't feel like being alone right now." It's really that simple.

 

Dusty Weis:

Heather, a moment ago, you said that the world needs more people like Lowell out there telling their stories and destigmatizing this. I think there's a lot of wisdom in that. Lowell, I know that in addition to your involvement at the Corn Growers Association, you put together a video with them. It's a video on YouTube where you tell your story there as well.

 

Dusty Weis:

Anybody who's interested can check out that video at ncga.ws/farmhealth, but we'll also put a link in the episode description here. But Lowell, I wanted to ask you, how did that come about? How did NCGA's team come to embrace and elevate the importance of doing work in this area?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

We got approached a couple years ago by the NCGA board. They said, "We've got some funding and we're going to put it in your portfolio. Please run with it." And so, we're not trying to reinvent the wheel by any means, but we're just trying to make it work. Because NCGA covers so many states. And so, we're trying to appease people in Ohio, Kansas, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

And so, we have so many places that we're trying to make everything work together for a greater cause. How I got involved with it and had our video done ... We had some really great photographers and some filmmakers that are on staff as contractors. And so, I was actually scheduled to do a shoot with them at my farm in Lawrence, in August. Adnan has known me for a while and he knew my story and how comfortable I was with telling my story.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

He was filming some stuff in the tractor and he's like, "Hey. We're going to try this." He grabbed one of these camera grabs and said, "Hey. Get in on this and let's see where this goes." And so, he asked me some questions. And I was in my element. I was in my tractor cab. And so, that's my happy space. We just started going and he asked me some questions. And then, it ended up being really good.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I showed that to my aunt and my wife. Adnan is amazing. They all cried the first time they saw it, because my grandpa is in that. They all knew how important he was to me and how important he was to them. Honestly, the first time I saw it, I really got emotional and I couldn't hardly handle it. It's just amazing. The power of a message. Especially, one that has done very well. I can't thank Adnan and his team enough. So great to have them as a team member to us.

 

Dusty Weis:

Again, we'll put a link to that video in the episode description here. But I would say that, anybody who's listening that knows someone who they want to get on the path to getting help. I think they should probably grab that video and send them an email. Or send it to them on Facebook or whatever your preferred method of communication is.

 

Dusty Weis:

Because it is powerful, Lowell. It was powerful what they did in telling that story. But it was powerful that you stood up and told that it in the first place. And so, thank you so much for doing that.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

You bet.

 

Dusty Weis:

Lowell, obviously, you've taken this on as a personal mission in your life, but talk a little bit more about ... You chair the team. Your team could have taken off and done a lot of things that are a little bit more traditional. Talk about membership and prizes for bringing in more members. Get that discount on the pickup or whatever.

 

Dusty Weis:

But you went off into a different direction and you've pushed it hard. How have you seen the evolution of your team and the team members? Where has that gone? Have you been surprised at what the response was in your team and how they have pushed forward to deal with these issues?

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I first took over the team in the middle of COVID. Our first in-person meeting with meeting the whole team was over Zoom. I knew a lot of my team, but you still don't get that personal touch. Or the involvement, so to speak. We actually got together last year in New Orleans. The person that was in charge of trying to help us find some stuff was struggling. Had a lot of people tell her that, "This is great. We're going to be involved."

 

Lowell Neitzel:

When they went to throw their hat in the ring, they backed out and said, "We're going to go a different direction." Or, "So-and-so reached out to us. We're going to go with them instead of you guys." We got done with her presentation, because she was on Zoom, and I jumped up and I said how frustrating it was that nobody wants to help us.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I got on my soapbox and I just ran it and raved. We went to lunch and I came back and it was amazing. My team grabbed me and said, "I'm so glad you're so passionate about this, because this is a big thing." My team is unique where I have some growers and I have a lot of state staff members on my team. A lot of my state staff members grabbed me and said, "You know how important other farmers are to me? They need to hear what you are so passionate about."

 

Lowell Neitzel:

I feel like they've got my back and I certainly got theirs. So if they call me and say, "Hey. What do you think about this?" I'm a very good sounding board for them. I use a couple of them quite a bit for a sounding board for myself. They are awesome. This is something that is very passionate to most of them. I've seen them in action, when we get to talking about this. How they light up, because they know this is making a difference in somebody's life that they're involved with directly. It's awesome.

 

Jon Doggett:

Heather, let's take an example. Do you have a farmer or a member of a farm family that is in acute distress? Very serious situation? What's the first place they ought to reach? What's that first phone call that they ought to make? Where can they find some help? Because it is daunting to find that help. What would be the first one or two places that you would suggest somebody to go to?

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Well, first of all, there's not one solution for every single person. My answer to you is, "It really depends," which is not clean and easy for anybody to hear. That's why in the Southern region, we're really working to gather all of the resources, so that it's a one-stop shop where farmers can go to figure out where they should go.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

We're only in the beginning building phases right now. We're not quite there yet. In the interim, I think reaching out to local organizations that provide support. Sometimes that looks like your local faith-based group. Sometimes that looks like reaching out to a group ... For instance, in North Carolina, we have North Carolina Agromedicine Institute.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Farmers are quite familiar with the Ag Safety folks or AgrAbility programs. Those are great places to go, because they understand the need to amend how we work in order to stay productive. I'm always going to say Extension. We have great resources throughout the country and increasingly Extension offices and institutions are really addressing this issue. Those are some of the top resources that I would say.

 

Jon Doggett:

You aren't always going to get the help that you necessarily need with the first phone call or the second phone call. But this is so important to make the third, fourth, or 82nd phone call. If that's what it's going to take.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Until our Southern region has this all solved and figured out. We're getting there. Let me tell you something. We're working day and night on it, but it's having the fortitude to stick with it. And that's something that farmers have. Engaging in whatever that splint is. Reaching out to someone who can walk that walk with you to making all of the phone calls. Because quite frankly, when you're in the midst of it all, it's really exhausting. You just don't want to have to make one more phone call or explain your story one more time.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Having someone who can do that for you ... Sometimes all it takes is making it a little bit easier on yourself. That might be jotting down a few notes that you can read off to people when you're talking to them, so that you don't always have to be pulling from your own memory. You can just say, "Here's my list of symptoms. Here's what I'm going through. How can you help me?" Just jotting some things down and having that readily available can be pretty powerful in helping you feel like you can have the stamina to continue reaching out.

 

Jon Doggett:

So many times one of the main symptoms of mental illness is that piece that keeps you from dealing with the mental illness. It's a circular thing, "I feel horrible. I feel awful. But I feel so bad, I can't get the help I need." And that's the scary part of this.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

We have a resource that I developed here in Tennessee and it's available to anyone. I can actually share a link with you all. It's called the Productivity Protocol. It's something you do when you're healthy, when you're feeling good. Just like we have a protocol for addressing mastitis in dairy heifers. And so, we have protocol. We know what we're supposed to be doing in certain situations.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Well, I developed what I'm calling the Productivity Protocol. It's literally just, "Hey. Here are the signs and symptoms that I should be recognizing in myself for when to be concerned. What should I do when that happens?" It's a step-by-step worksheet that you can post on the back of a door in your shop or in your barn or maybe on your tractor.

 

Dr. Heather Sedges:

Put it in a Ziploc bag and have it right there in your tractor. Run through it and check yourself. Because ultimately, it's about remaining productive on the farm. Right? We want to keep being able to do what we need to do. Having a resource like that can be also be really helpful to people.

 

Lowell Neitzel:

Absolutely, Heather. I was given a worksheet similar to what you're talking about by one of my therapists that I was seeing. When you work through it, you realize that your day isn't as bad as you played it off in your head. And so, it makes a world of difference. I actually shared that with my team. They're like, "Holy cow, that is a really great source." Kudos for that. Awesome.

 

Dusty Weis:

Well, Heather, as you said, there are a number of resources that are out there. We are actually going to compile a list of those and clickable links. We're going to put those in the episode description, so anybody that needs to run through that protocol can find it there. But Jon, do you have anything else to add at this point?

 

Jon Doggett:

Dusty, I just want to thank Heather and Lowell so much for the work that they have done on this issue. Heather is going to be with our action team meetings in July, in Washington, D.C. Looking forward to meeting her in person. And of course, Lowell is continuing his work. Not only on the farm, but with his team that he cherishes so well and tells his story so well. Thank you so much for all that you've done on this. The courage and the compassion you've shown in speaking out and letting folks know that they're not alone.

 

Jon Doggett:

I want to close by urging farm families and industry partners and those that care for farmers to look for signs. It seems intimidating. It seems that's something completely out of what most of us do most of the time. But it's vital. Saying something can truly mean everything and not saying something can lead to some bad things. And so, we need to help one another.

 

Jon Doggett:

I think that's what we're here for, is to help one another, and to see people become everything that they can be. Certainly, this is an important thing for our organization. And I know it's important to the folks that are listening to this podcast. I'm Jon Doggett. I'm the CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. We hope you'll join us again real soon for the next episode of Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association podcast.

 

Dusty Weis:

That is going to wrap up this edition of Wherever Jon May Roam, the National Corn Growers Association podcast. New episodes arrive monthly. Make sure you subscribe in your favorite app and join us again soon. Visit ncga.com to learn more or sign up for the Association's email newsletter.

 

Dusty Weis:

Wherever Jon May Roam is brought to you by the National Corn Growers Association with production oversight by Larry Kilgore III and additional editing by Beatrice Lawrence. It's produced by Podcamp Media. Branded podcast production for businesses, podcampmedia.com. For The National Corn Growers Association, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.

 

 

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