FARIBAULT - You don't need a degree or any special skills to help save a life.
That's the takeaway from training sessions put on by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Department of Health.
The four-hour suicide prevention training teaches participants how to recognize someone having thoughts of suicide, how to engage them and how to make sure they get help.
At program last week in Faribault, Minnesota Commissioner of Ag Thom Petersen called the workshops necessary.
"I've taken some of those calls this year," said Petersen of suicidal farmers or ag workers.
He said it's crucial for farmers to know that the ag department has the resources to get them the help they need if they are struggling.
"We have counselors, we have farm advocates and we have the help line," said Petersen. "And we really want people to know what those resources are."
Glen Bloomstrom, faith community liaison and military representative for LivingWorks Education, an international suicide intervention training company, is the workshop instructor. Bloomstrom served on active duty as a U.S. Army chaplain for 30 years.
The independence in farm culture, self-sufficiency of farmers, stigma and lack of training makes the ag industry vulnerable to suicide, said Bloomstrom.
But Bloomstrom said there's a lot to be hopeful about for rural communities to improve suicide prevention.
"I don't think it's a stereotype that there's a greater connected-ness to one another," said Bloomstrom. "There's a commitment to help each other."
He urged attendees to understand their capability to help someone suicidal, even if the person is a visibly upset stranger. Bloomstrom told the crowd they may not be professionals, but they are "natural helpers."
When people see, hear, sense or learn signs of struggle in a person, Bloomstrom said it's an invitation to ask them directly if they are thinking about suicide. A person with thoughts of suicide almost always wants to talk about why suicide has come into their life, he said.
Practice being awkward
SafeTALK workshops include a practice element in which participants act out difficult conversations and meetings. Bloomstrom asked participants last week to ask if he was having suicidal thoughts.
"Ask me like I'm one of your buddies, or a customer you know very well," he told the audience. "This isn't play, it's practice."
After about a 30 second pause, the first person asked. Then another pause, this time, for about a minute, before the second person spoke up. Audience responses flowed after that, with 11 breaking out of their comfort zones to ask the instructor if he was thinking about suicide.
"It's really helpful to practice having a difficult conversation, so that when you get into a real situation, you'll have at least done it before," said Stacey Jenkins of Eagan, Minn., who works with a nonprofit organization of healthcare providers who specialize in caring for farmers and rural communities.
Strength from survivors
Bloomstrom said some of the greatest advocates for suicide prevention are survivors of suicide attempts.
"We need to talk to survivors, and not ignore survivors," he said.
It's best to avoid platitudes regarding suicide, said Bloomstrom, often used by people who don't know what else to say. 'God needed another angel is heaven' is not helpful to grieving family members; asking how you can pray or support them is.
"Thank you for getting this out in the farming community, because it's making it easier to talk about, and move forward," said Janni Hennes, a nurse from Shakopee, Minn.
Hennes' comment came near the end of the training session, after Bloomstrom's call to include more survivors in prevention efforts.
Her voice trembled as she told the group her story, of how she belongs to a fourth-generation farm family. Her father died five years ago and her two brothers now run the operation in Shakopee.
In September, her younger brother attempted suicide.
Hennes said they knew her brother was struggling. That may have been how they were able to react quickly and save him that day.
As a nurse, Hennes said she knew how important networking is, but she really saw that in the first weeks after her brother's attempt.
"While he's in the field, my other brother had his phone ringing off the hook from people he didn't even know," said Hennes. "They just wanted to talk to him, share their stories and their hope. Their version of 'I survived this, you can survive this too.'"
A close friend to the family even shared how he'd attempted suicide years ago after a divorce, but kept it a secret out of shame. He shared with the family the professional that helped him recover, and Hennes' brother now sees that individual.
Roller coaster of emotions
"We made up our minds that we weren't going to hide this," Hennes said later.
She said two months after her brother's suicide attempt, the family was "all on a different roller coaster of emotions."
Luckily, their network in the farming community was deep. Because of that, the day after her brother got out of inpatient treatment, he was able to go straight to Ted Matthews, director of mental health outreach for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
But she said recovery may not be as straightforward for other families, and that's why her family isn't shying away from what happened. She said her brother still struggles from feeling shame, but is "climbing the ladder of better mental health."
Hennes also has started to reach out more on social media platforms to reach people who may be struggling.
"You know you can help other people, but you have to go out of your comfort zone to ask," said Hennes. "You just have to say 'look, I'm worried about you, and it'd be worse if I didn't ask and something happened.'"