How communities can battle isolation – together

Many have become acutely aware of the bitterness of isolation. But there’s a flip side to that realization – a new appreciation for human connection.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Don Harms, with his dog Max, pulls a hayride to raise money for the Farmer Angel Network on Sept. 26, 2020, in Reedsburg, Wisconsin.

Few challenges are as daunting as the problems society tries to ignore.

In this week’s cover story, Stephanie Hanes confronts one of America’s most protracted problems: suicide. 

In recent decades, a surge in awareness has spawned a wave of suicide-prevention efforts since the U.S. Congress first formally recognized the issue as a national problem in 1997. Since then, however, the number of deaths has risen. From 1999 to 2018, suicide rates in the United States increased 35%. Mental health advocates worry that number will increase as the current economic and health crises continue. 

But Stephanie’s story, which focuses on the farming community, offers a countertrend, one that might serve as a model for other communities. In church basements and community centers across America, farmers who have grappled with thoughts of self-harm are finding that by sharing their own struggles, they can help others.

Suicide is often a function of loneliness, if not from physical isolation then from a sense of emotional separation. The irony is that no one is truly alone in experiencing debilitating despair. For every death by suicide, there are countless other stories of survival. But we live in a society where those stories are often guarded as shameful secrets. As a result, people who are suffering often feel like no one could possibly understand what they are going through.

The genius of the Farmer Angel Network, profiled in Stephanie’s story, is profoundly simple.

Because network participants are all farmers, they are intimately familiar with the pressure of razor-thin profit margins, market fluctuations, and bad weather. They know both the pride and burden of carrying on the legacy of a family farm. And they know what it’s like to feel lost in darkness. 

Once stories start flowing, participants say, it becomes easier to feel connected. The bigger challenge, it turns out, is getting the conversation started in the first place. 

Farmers are a particularly stoic group. But they aren’t the only Americans who are reluctant to share their emotional burdens. In many communities, the persistent stigma around mental health can be a barrier to getting help.

But as the farmers in Stephanie’s story found, that stigma need not be permanent. By carving out space for communities to come together to share triumphs and burdens alike, everyone can be part of the solution.

That lesson is particularly relevant today. As the pandemic stretches on, many have become acutely aware of the bitterness of isolation. But there’s a flip side to that realization – a growing appreciation for just how powerful even fleeting moments of human connection can be. 

As Jeff Ditzenberger, a corn and soybean farmer near Madison, Wisconsin, tells Stephanie: “We all need to take a step back and remember that everybody is facing a battle, and we just need to be a bit nicer to each other.”

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