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SUICIDE PREVENTION | A POPULATION AT RISK

As Wisconsin farmers struggle, new effort aims to prevent suicide

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Financial struggles led Leon Statz to sell his 50 dairy cows, causing the third-generation farmer to become depressed.

Then land next to his 200-acre farm near Loganville went up for sale — land his late father had said he should buy. Statz, who didn’t have the money, became hopeless.

On Oct. 8, the day the adjacent property hit the market, Statz killed himself on his farm. He was 57.

“He said, ‘How am I going to afford this?’” said Brenda Statz, his wife of 34 years. “He would panic about everything when it got to finances.”

Wisconsin, which had a record 915 suicides in 2017, may be seeing a surge in suicides and suicidal thoughts among farmers, who are facing some of the worst economic challenges in years, experts say.

Exact numbers of suicides among farmers aren’t available, and authorities say some deaths reported as farm accidents are actually suicides.

But calls to the Wisconsin Farm Center, which helps distressed farmers, were up last year, including a 33 percent increase in November and December compared to the same two months the previous year.

Suicides in Wisconsin

“We definitely have seen an increase in folks who are closer to being that desperate,” said Angie Sullivan, supervisor of the farm center, part of the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. “There’s a major increase in their stress level.”

The anguish is approaching that of the 1980s farm crisis, though interest rates today aren’t as high, said Frank Friar, an economic specialist at the farm center who has done similar work for decades.

“There’s so much volatility out there and so much unknown, it makes people think negative,” Friar said.

Randy with his dad

Randy Roecker, right, talks with his dad, Gerald, on his farm in Loganville. Roecker said he became suicidal in 2008, when the recession hit, after investing millions to expand the farm started by his grandfather in the 1930s. “I felt like I was losing the farm, a generational farm," he said. "This plays with your mind so bad. It is overwhelming.” 

John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders, an advocacy group in Madison, said he believes farmer suicides are up in Wisconsin from what he’s heard.

Several years of low milk prices, the high cost of farm equipment, trade wars and other pressures contributed to the closure of 691 dairy farms in the state last year, the highest number of closures since 2011.

About 8,100 dairy farms remain, down from about 15,900 in 2004. The number of cows milked has remained steady at nearly 1.3 million, as many surviving farms have expanded.

Wisconsin dairy farms

In 2017, the Western District of Wisconsin had the highest number of Chapter 12 farm bankruptcies in the country, according to federal court data. The district that year had 28 bankruptcies, which represent only a fraction of total liquidations. Similar figures for 2018 are not yet available.

Talking about suicide

Though the forces working against farmers can seem insurmountable, a growing effort based in Dodgeville aims to help farmers cope with stress and avoid suicide.

Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program started a farmer suicide prevention project this month. The effort, funded by a $50,000 grant from the UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Wisconsin Partnership Program, was prompted by an increase in stories about suicides or suicidal thoughts among farmers, said Wally Orzechowski, executive director.

“Farmers tend to be pretty isolated and pretty independent,” Orzechowski said. “When issues of mental health arise, they tend to just deal with it by themselves.”

The project, which also involves the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County, plans to develop a mobile crisis service, conduct suicide prevention training sessions and establish networks to address suicide in a region stretching from Eau Claire to the state border with Dubuque, Iowa.

Julie and Phil Henneman

Julie and Phil Henneman, who live on a farm near Boscobel, lost their son Keith to suicide in 2006, when he was 29. He may have been depressed about diseased dairy cows, relationship problems or other factors, but he seemed fine, his parents said. "Suicide was totally not anywhere on our radar," Julie Henneman said. "However bad you think things are, ending your life is not the solution. It negatively affects so many others."

“The biggest part is to spread awareness, to say, ‘It is OK to talk about it,’” said Sue Springer Judd, who runs the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Iowa County, which also serves six nearby counties.

Judd spoke to a group of farmers this month in Loganville, about 50 miles northwest of Madison. Her brother, Donald Springer, killed himself in 2012 at age 41, leaving behind three children ages 10 to 15. He owned a plumbing business and had a hobby farm next to his father’s beef farm near Mineral Point.

“We had no idea he was suicidal; we just thought he was depressed,” Judd told more than 40 farmers and others gathered at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Loganville to discuss farmer stress and suicide awareness. “We didn’t know he was going bankrupt and losing his plumbing business.”

Suffering alone

Randy Roecker, 54, a dairy farmer in Loganville, said he became suicidal a decade ago when the Great Recession hit shortly after he invested millions to expand the farm started by his grandfather.

Medications and hospitalizations didn’t help much, but counseling brought some relief, he said.

Randy with old barn

Randy Roecker, a Loganville farmer who said he has depression, has expanded the family farm beyond the barn first used by his grandfather. Debt from the expansion continues to trouble Roecker, but he is feeling better thanks to counseling. "You’re operating on borrowed money all the time," he said. "You never make any headway.” 

“I’m doing better, but I’m still struggling every day,” said Roecker, whose farm milks about 325 cows on 800 acres. “We suffer alone in silence, is what we do.”

Roecker — who attends St. Peter’s, as does Brenda Statz — helped organize this month’s church gathering. He wanted to do something to help after he couldn’t bring himself to attend Leon Statz’s funeral because the suicide brought back his feelings of despair.

“You feel like you’re in this pit, and you’re climbing to try to get out of it,” Roecker said. “We are all struggling so bad. My friends in the city, they have no idea what we’re going through. ... Every load of milk that goes out, we’re losing money.”

When Roecker thought about ending his life, he pictured his two children, minors at the time and now adults, standing by his casket. That prevented him from following through, he said.

Stress on the farm

For Keith Henneman, from near Boscobel, an outbreak of Johne’s disease, a fatal intestinal infection in cows, appeared to be one reason he killed himself in 2006 at age 29, his parents said.

Keith Henneman

Photos and other memorabilia of Keith Henneman are displayed in the house of Julie and Phil Henneman, whose son killed himself in 2006.

“It’s very difficult losing cattle like that,” said his mother, Julie Henneman, who with her husband, Phil, sold the 60 cows on their dairy farm, along with the equipment, to their son after he graduated from high school.

“You work so hard to raise the calves and bring them up into the herd, and then a year or two years later, they go downhill,” Julie Henneman said. “There’s a lot of stress on the farm.”

The Hennemans continue to live on the 215-acre farm with two other sons, but they aren’t farming. The couple have other jobs — Julie, 62, at Lands’ End in Dodgeville, and Phil, 63, as a correctional officer at the prison in Boscobel, about 75 miles west of Madison.

Julie with quilt

After Julie Henneman's son Keith died by suicide in 2006 at age 29, Henneman tried a variety of ways to cope, including making a quilt using fabric from his boxer shorts for butterfly wings.

They help lead a Dodgeville chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who have lost children for any reason. They also provide training in QPR — or Question, Persuade, Refer — a CPR-like program that helps people recognize signs of suicide and ways to help.

QPR training sessions are one component of the new farmer suicide prevention project.

“No matter how dark a day it is, there is always light someplace, and you can continue on,” Phil Henneman said, sharing some of what he discusses at the training sessions. If people say they’re suicidal, he added, “ask them open-ended questions and let them talk.”

Tried to get help

Brenda Statz, 55, was no stranger to signs of suicide by the time her husband took his life in October. He had struggled with depression for years and attempted suicide twice last year after they got rid of their dairy cows in December 2017.

“When we sold the cows, (his depression) came back full bore, and the medications didn’t work,” she said. “Nothing did.”

Leon Statz poster board

Photos of Leon Statz are arranged on a poster board displayed at his funeral in October, after he died by suicide. His grandson, shown with Statz at bottom right, turned a year old the day after Statz's death. A granddaughter was born the following week.

It wasn’t from a lack of trying. Leon Statz stayed in UW Hospital’s psychiatry unit four times last year and was admitted to Winnebago Mental Health Institute. He saw a counselor in Sauk City and had outpatient treatment at Rogers Behavioral Health in Madison.

Brenda Statz, who works at Lands’ End in its Reedsburg location, said she is disappointed with the mental health care system. Doctors didn’t return her calls or tell her and her three adult children how to help Leon when he was at home, she said.

“I didn’t know what to do with him when his anxiety was through the roof,” she said. “The whole family is affected. That’s where so many places miss the boat.”

Brenda with Leon's journal

Brenda Statz pages through her late husband Leon's journal in her farmhouse near Loganville. He was hospitalized several times and treated with medications for depression last year, after they sold their dairy cows, but died by suicide in October. Brenda Statz has had counseling to deal with his depression and his loss. "It wears on you, too," she said. "Your mind is never at ease.” 

Leon Statz agonized about money, so Brenda Statz brought friends and financial experts over to look at their records. Despite some challenges, the farm was paid for and the family was doing OK, they would tell him. The plan was to switch to beef cattle and plant more crops.

But Leon Statz kept saying he was going to lose the farm, Brenda Statz said.

“He couldn’t see the future,” she said. “All he saw was failure.”

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.