Kansas farmers, ranchers plant seeds of change to erode stigma of mental illness

Sedgwick County farmer: ‘Sick and tired of going to other people’s funerals out here’

By: - January 4, 2023 10:01 am
Sedgwick County farmers Mick Rausch and Donna Wise, left and center, and Osage County nurse practitioner and rancher Ashley Beying shared their experiences with mental illness in agricultural settings during a meeting of the Kansas Farm Bureau. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Sedgwick County farmers Mick Rausch and Donna Wise, left and center, and Osage County nurse practitioner and rancher Ashley Beying shared their experiences with mental illness in agricultural settings during a meeting of the Kansas Farm Bureau. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

MANHATTAN — Sedgwick County farmer Mick Rausch’s struggle with depression coincided with his brother’s cancer diagnosis and a freeze that thwarted harvest of a wheat crop.

Rausch had promised his father-in-law that he would not let the family’s century-old farm go under. Quitting wasn’t an option, he said.

He kept shoving aside reality of compounding stress and strain. He dodged his wife’s inquiries. He didn’t want to utter three powerful words: I need help. The problem came to a head when he crawled under a piece of farm equipment to perform routine maintenance and ended up taking a three-hour nap. That out-of-character slumber convinced him to get serious about his mental well-being.

“It’s really hard for a guy to admit to a problem,” Rausch said. “You’re in agriculture. We know how to deal with a problem — take care of it, work a little harder, work a little longer. Things kind of snowballed and I just got to the point I had to seek help.”

He made an appointment with a doctor and was able to talk with professionals about his mental health challenges. He was put on medication that made a difference.

“All the credit goes to my wife,” he said. “She stuck with me through a very difficult summer.”

It led about 15 years later to the Kansas Farm Bureau convention in Manhattan and a seat next to Ashley Beying, an Osage County nurse practitioner and rancher, and Donna Wise, a Clearwater corn, wheat, sorghum and soybean farmer who was 18 when her father died of suicide.

The trio’s task was to share with farmers, ranchers and others their understanding of how to manage the inevitable stress of a life in agriculture. They were guests of the Women’s Leadership Committee of the Farm Bureau.

Rausch said he learned to welcome the opportunity to speak to others about his journey of despair and recovery.

“The first thing I tell people is I’m sick and tired of going to other people’s funerals out here that I could have prevented,” he said.


Walking on egg shells

Wise, who grew up walking on egg shells at home due to her father’s severe depression, said her mother chose to blame Wise and her sibling brother for their father’s condition. She learned to cope by being self-reliant and spending as much time as possible outdoors. Her father was unable to find a way to deal with the pain and took his life more than 50 years ago, Wise said. She continues to mourn that loss.

“Farmers spend so much time alone working on the farm,” said Wise, who became an ordained minister and relied on her experience to assist people talking of suicide. “That’s a lot of time to think and think and get into some deep, dark places.”

She said people in crisis needed to understand their families wouldn’t be better off without them. Family members feel abandoned in wake of a suicide, she said.

Beying, the nurse practitioner who works at a rural health clinic, said the national conversation about mental illness had lowered barriers that deterred people from being transparent about depression, anxiety and other conditions that could benefit from medical intervention. If someone could feel more stable by taking prescription medication, she said, family or society had no right to stigmatize that solution.

“Mental health wasn’t something that was typically talked about when I was younger,” Beying said. “As a health care provider, looking at my patients, I would want to take care of their blood pressure, take care of their cholesterol, their diabetes. So, why wouldn’t I want to take care of their mind?”

She said the nation’s capacity to provide mental health services needed to grow exponentially because the demand outstripped available facilities and personnel. In Kansas, there are resources available to people struggling with mental health.

Wise said harsh opinions associated with mental illness had diminished over the years, but less progress had been made with the stigma of suicide.

“From my experience,” she said, “I have often felt I was not allowed to talk about the fact I had suicide in my family. People don’t want to hear about it. They run away.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported farmers and ranchers were almost two times more likely to die from suicide than people engaged in other occupations. In 2021, Kansas Health Institute reported the rate of suicide in rural counties in Kansas climbed 55% from 2000 to 2019.


COVID-19 factor

Wise and Beying said onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 required folks to spend more time at home and offered a chance for people to become more sensitized to what they were feeling. It gave people an opportunity to take advantage of therapy through telehealth services or online formats, they said.

Rausch took the opposite perspective.

“In my area, we didn’t have good internet when the pandemic came on. We were basically isolated,” he said. “I’m kind of a people person. To me, mental health is about your mind and being out with people. If you’re locked up, nobody knows how you are.”

Rausch said if a friend didn’t look right or was acting strange, he would start a conversation and stick to the basics.

“Ask them, ‘Is there an issue? Is there something I can help you with?’ And, then, listen.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.