Bethlem Royal Hospital, also known as Bedlam, is an English psychiatric hospital that once was notorious for its atrocious treatment of mentally ill patients. Reflecting the attitude of the era, respectable English families, parents with their children, came to gawk at the patients - mental illness becoming entertainment. Though the MTV Generation no longer uses the word, bedlam (not capitalized) came to mean chaos and confusion.
I thought of Bedlam (the capitalized one) when I reported and wrote a recent Agweek cover package on the Upper Midwest's difficult wheat harvest. Wheat industry officials from around the region commented on the financial and production challenges faced by farmers this season.
To their credit, two of the officials mentioned that many farmers are facing emotional challenges, particularly extreme stress and depression, this fall. Both officials, again to their credit, urged farmers with those symptoms to get help and emphasized that the rest of us should encourage farmers exhibiting signs of stress or depression to find someone to talk with.
That's real and needed progress: mental health discussed openly and honestly.
Stress and depression have been problems since homesteading days, when farmers and ranchers faced isolation, backbreaking labor and the lack of a safety net when times turned especially bad. They remain problems - inevitably so, given things such as prices and weather that farmers can't control.
I have no statistics or concrete evidence to back this up, but it's clear that stress and depression once were ignored or swept under the rug by most Upper Midwest agriculturalists. And when the symptoms were mentioned, usually in hushed whispers, they were dismissed as moral weakness, lack of self-discipline, divine punishment or some other nonsense.
Now, mental illness is rightly seen, at least by most people, as a treatable medical condition.
A difficult fall
This fall threatens to be one of the most stressful seasons ever for Upper Midwest farmers. An exceptionally wet fall has delayed an already late harvest, and many farmers, as well as grain elevator employees and other front-line ag workers, are struggling to cope. Day after day, rain after rain, one delay after another - agriculturalists understandably become stressed and depressed, especially when the delays threaten their ability to pay bills and stay in business.
But help is available. Recognizing mental health threats, state Extension services and other organizations have compiled online resources to help stressed and depressed people, as well as their friends, neighbors and relatives. To single out one of the online sites (there are other good ones, too): https://twin-cities.umn.edu/news-events/u-m-provides-mental-health-and-s....
These online resources and the comments of the two wheat officials, among other things, reassure me that the dark, despicable days of Bedlam are long gone. U.S. agriculturalists have improved our understanding of, and response to, stress and depression. Though some stigma remains, we generally realize that mental illness has nothing to do with moral weakness or divine punishment and can be treated successfully.
But we can't be satisfied or complacent, especially in this wet and difficult harvest. If you know someone in ag who shows signs of stress and depression, reach out respectfully. And if you're stressed or depressed yourself, don't hesitate to get help.
All of us involved in Upper Midwest ag realize the daunting production and financial difficulties this harvest season. Let's be sure we don't shortchange the emotional challenges.