The deepest economic depression in the California dairy industry since the Great Depression has bared a subject far more compelling than the cost of feed and the price of milk.

It is suicide.

“When someone says, ‘This is my last day on earth,’ it’s very frightening,” said Michael Marsh, chief executive officer, Western United Dairymen, Modesto, Calif. He has intervened to help at least two dairy operators this year after they expressed despair. Western represents 1,100 dairy members producing 60 percent of California’s milk.

Marsh said the men were despondent over finances and setbacks in the industry, a shriveling export market, an oversupply of milk and the necessity to trim herds or completely sell out herds as milk prices dipped and losses soared. In brief, he said, “losing everything.”

They survived, in part due to Marsh’s help in accessing mental health services.

But two other California dairy farmers killed themselves in recent months. There were reports of many more.

And on the subject of those suicides, Marsh said, “I pray we have had the last one and that the economic situation turns around.”

The issue of suicide on dairies and the pain of losing the family farm is a national one, and expertise from outside the state has been tapped in recent weeks to strengthen lifelines in California.

A California webinar in June focused on farmer stress, depression and suicide. It was aimed at pinpointing signs of distress and ways of getting help. Its audience was made up of people who interact with dairy operators: dairy veterinarians, agricultural lenders, field staff from producer and processor organizations, regulatory field staff, consultants, University of California livestock advisers and staff of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

A task force is now stepping up efforts in Tulare County, the nation’s leading milk producer, to reach out to those despairing because of finances – and not just those in the dairy industry. It will reach out to a wide range of people, including hair salon operators who might get an earful on life’s stresses. There are reports of at least four suicides related to the dairy crisis this year in Tulare County.

“If producers have an issue, we need to get them to mental health resources as quickly as we can,” said Marsh, who said this is the first year he has known of suicides on dairies in California linked to the economic downturn.

“This is the deepest economic depression the dairy industry has seen since the Great Depression,” he said.

Marsh said there was some despair among dairy operators in 2006, when milk prices were also low and a heat wave killed thousands of cows in California. Rendering plants were so backlogged that farmers had to bury many animals on their land.

He said he has given troubled dairy operators his home phone and told them, “Pick up the phone day or night and give me a call. If you need a place to stay, give me a call.” He declined to elaborate on specific assistance he provided.

“The other details are personal,” he said.

Experts say it’s that sort of caring outreach that is needed in the face of today’s trying times.

Trying times

People need to be aware of cries for help and respond accordingly, said Robert Fetsch, Extension specialist in human development and family studies at Colorado State University. Fetsch, who is nationally recognized for his research on outreach in mental health issues for farmers, was the principal presenter for the California webinar.

Partners for that webinar included the California Dairy Quality Assurance Program, the Kings County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office and Colorado State University.

Fetsch gave a power point presentation brimming with tips on how to recognize signs of distress and detailing how serious the problem of suicide can be for those in agriculture. The webinar, along with other resources on dealing with stress among dairy farmers, can be accessed at www.cdqa.or/stress_preventoin.htm.

“You need to listen to the people with the most worry,” Fetsch said, adding that could be an in-law or it could be a child. Often, he said, children may be the “canaries” of the family, providing an early warning if something is wrong.

He said other major losses – such as the death of a child or spouse – can compound the problem. And cries for help – such as giving away a favorite dog or possession – can be red flags. Listening to what is said – and how it is said – can be key.

Fetsch, the son of a dairy operator in Texas, said if a person speaks with “a voice that is hollow and doesn’t seem connected with what is going on,” help may be needed.

He said farming of is one of the top 12 high stress occupations, partly because of stressors that include inclement weather, regulatory activity and heavy workloads at peak times.

Michael Payne, a doctor of veterinary medicine who heads the Dairy Assurance Program, said his expertise is more geared to animal welfare and producers’ response to environmental concerns. Payne is also outreach coordinator the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at the University of California, Davis.

He called the webinar “a first bite of the apple” and said webinar participants are “wrestling with what our next step is.”

Among the webinar participants was Noah Whitaker, an administrative specialist with the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency. He is coordinating a suicide prevention task force in the county that he hopes will give “specific responses for different populations.”

“Producers, for example, need a different response than the farmhand,” he said, adding that the hope is to respond to economically stressed individuals across the board, while trying to tailor the response to specialties that include agriculture.

Whitaker said he was contacted by someone who saw the webinar and recognized that he had symptoms of depression that were outlined by Fetsch.

Suicide prevention

Whitaker said Sept. 6-12 is National Suicide Prevention Week, and his task force is planning a number of outreach efforts during that week. He said that will include discussing risk factors that go beyond simply preventing suicide.

“What we’ll do is the equivalent of washing your hands to prevent a cold, rather than just focusing on the cold medicine.” For example, efforts will include providing information on how to address issues with lenders.

Whitaker said an effort will be made to reach “first responders” to financial stress, and that can include “the hair salon, where people may open up.” He cited a key resource for anyone contemplating suicide or even those seeking to prevent suicide – a hotline that is available around the clock and can be used anywhere in the United States. It connects the caller to a certified crisis center where the call is placed. The number: (800) 273-8255.

He said other resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Web site at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Another resource is www.lifeline-gallery.org, which can help those who may be suicidal and those who are survivors of suicide, who share their stories anonymously.

AgriWellness Inc., a non-profit in Harlan, Iowa, provides administrative support on behavioral health in seven states, offering both suicide hotlines and help lines for those wrestling with behavioral health issues.

Mike Rosmann, a clinical psychologist who has a row crop farm in Iowa, is the executive director for AgriWellness, an organization that had its origin in 2001 following the farm crisis of the 1980s. The number of callers to his organization has risen significantly and the reasons for calling are more serious than they were before the nation’s economic decline.

“For example, in Wisconsin, the number increased 20 percent when the first four months of 2009 are compared to 2008. It rose from 431 to 438. The number of callers who indicated financial stress in 2008 totaled 130 – for 2009, it was 252. Three callers indicated they faced severe stress and 41 noted high stress in 2008. In 2009, there were eight reports of severe stress and 68 for high stress.

Rosmann said it takes as much as a year and half for the Centers for Disease Control to release statistics on actual suicides.

He said the bond between people who work the land and their land is strong.

“Sometimes they envision the possible loss of the land and livestock,” he said. “They react by working ever harder. They become so exhausted, their sleep deteriorates, they become emotionally drained, fatigued and depressed.”

Rosmann said Congress is considering legislation that would fund a “farm and ranch stress assistance network.”

He said suicide links to losing land and livestock can be strong, referring to the increased suicide rate in Great Britain in the wake of animal destruction due to foot and mouth, and mad cow disease.

Randy Weigel, Extension specialist at the University of Wyoming, said some symptoms of stress – including difficulty sleeping or oversleeping and weight loss – could also stem from other medical conditions.

“The person should see their primary caregiver. The symptoms could be a physical ailment,” he said.

Wyoming is regularly among the top three states in suicide. Weigel said factors could be isolation, a high percentage of firearms and a lack of health resources.