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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.