Marilyn Hershey

Resilience has always been a word that embodies farmers. I have heard this stated numerous times but never more frequently than in the past six months.

The definition of resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness; elasticity.

I stand behind this and agree; we are tough, get back up after being knocked down, dust off our jeans, and keep doing our work. Still, I will also say that this crisis has brought out a new side to farmers; an admittance that mental health is a real struggle and an undeniable force to be reckoned with.

There is mention of it most every day on social media. Dairy cooperatives are dedicating staff, time, and energy to the efforts, and agricultural businesses are bringing awareness to the issue of stress and mental health.

The most significant change I see in this campaign is how much other farmers are talking about their mental wellness. Not necessarily to just tell his or her story, but to help others on their journey. This is a beautiful picture of our farming family.

Growing up under the umbrella of resiliency does not make it easy to admit a weakness, and especially a weakness of the mind. Most of us have been raised and told that “mind over matter” will take care of the problem. Or if we just “work it off,” the problem will disappear.

Although I am a strong supporter of having a positive outlook, it is equally important to be real. Ignoring overwhelming feelings does not help the situation.

Many years ago, one of our children dealt with depression and anxiety. We had just endured three-plus years of cancer treatments with his brother. Medical procedures were common in our family, but this was new. And as a mother, I found this situation equally difficult. None of the solutions were easy or quick; there wasn’t a doctor’s procedure that helped his feelings instantly turn, and there wasn’t a prescription that got him off of the couch.

The first doctor deemed it “in his head” and sent us home, which sent this mama bear through the roof.

The next doctor knew exactly what to do and say, mainly because he had been through this himself. He knew this was not in our son’s “head,” and that he couldn’t just turn off and on his emotions and feelings. Like cancer, this would take time, but he also felt, with great confidence, that our child would find healing.

One of the reasons the doctor had that confidence was the fact that we had a dairy farm. We had animals that required care; this was an important step in his healing. He told us that having responsibility for the animals would give him a reason to get up in the morning and an edge to beat this illness.

A number of years ago, we went through a rough time financially on the farm. It was a particularly busy time with our family, and our son was deployed to Iraq. To say the least, life was overwhelming. I was struggling emotionally. But I didn’t tell anyone.

It is amazing what we decide to hide from each other, even from those who are close to us. I remember sitting in the calf barn doing deep breathing exercises until the feeling passed or the calves bawled too long.

Although Duane knew that I was going through a tough time emotionally, I didn’t know how to explain the depth. So I kept that between God and I. Eventually the farm turned around, our son returned home, life went back to normal, and I stuffed the secret deep in the calf barn.

I don’t know why I felt so compelled to go through this alone. I have a wonderfully supportive family, and there would not have been any negative repercussions. I suppose the stigma that a mental weakness is one to be hidden from others dominated my ability to communicate. Unfortunately, hiding out in the calf barn does not allow for that extra level of healing to take place.

This past year there has been a tremendous amount of attention given to mental wellness: prevention, maintenance, and awareness. This is especially true on social media.

One thing that impresses me about these people is their willingness to open up and share their personal battles with others. This collaboration is a beautiful support that has the capacity to help someone else who may be going through the same thing.

Then there is Randy, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin who, through his own struggles with mental illness, is determined to help others know they are not alone. He and a neighbor started a group, the Farmer Angel Network, and he has told his story on many major media channels. I am inspired by how he openly talks about his experience in hopes to help others who are struggling.

I am sure he and all the mental wellness advocates will never know how many people they have helped. They just keep caring, sharing their experiences, and hoping their words and actions will give someone else courage to face their giant. They are a beautiful picture of resiliency.

The author and her husband, Duane, own and operate a 550-cow dairy in Cochranville, Pa.