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Agribusiness often first to see mental health challenges on farm

“If a neighbor stops showing up to church or to coffee at the local cafe, it’s time to stop by and check in to see how they are doing,” Ehlert says.

“That’s not my job.”

Be honest. We’ve all said that four-word phrase sometime or another since we started earning a paycheck. But when it comes to mental health, it’s not something any of us in the agribusiness industry should ever say.

“Mental health in general is not something that people in agriculture, even the general public, are good at talking about and I think some agribusiness professionals, think ‘That’s not my job. You know, I’m a range specialist, I’m the grain elevator guy, or I’m a salesman, why do I have to be worried about that?’” says Krista Ehlert, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resource Management and state Extension range specialist at South Dakota State University. “For one thing, those are your clients and more importantly than that, they are human. Everyone is trying to find their own way and I think being receptive and approachable can really make a big difference.”

Since mid-April, Ehlert and five other SDSU Extension specialists, along with Andrea Bjornestad, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Developing and SDSU Extension Mental Health specialist, have not only been lending an ear to stressed farmers and ranchers but are also teaching agribusiness professionals across the state to do the same. Last month, SDSU Extension hosted eight workshops, four for farmers and farm families “Weathering the Storm in Agriculture” and four for agribusiness professionals for “Communicating with Farmers Under Stress.” The workshops stem from a Farm Stress Summit Ehlert and the other Extension specialists attended this past January at Michigan State University. During the Summit, the South Dakota group joined over 100 Extension personnel from 20 states to be trained on how to host these types of workshops.

On May 23 they will host eight more in Lemmon, Mitchell, Watertown and Winner, in the hopes of opening up more dialogue on mental health in the agricultural community.

“That’s kind of a first step in alleviating some of this chronic stress, by just asking people how they’re doing and getting them to open up a little bit to you,” Ehlert says. “Then with the workshops for the agribusiness professionals, we discuss the different signs of depression and suicidal tendencies. We share how to talk to people when they are depressed and under chronic stress and what to do if you think they are having suicidal tendencies. It’s really heavy, but the more people are aware of what that looks like and even better how to handle it themselves, then hopefully more people can start getting the help that they need.”

As Ehlert points out, agribusiness professionals are often the first ones to spot an issue.

“You see them at these different points of time, and you develop relationships with them, and you really get a sense of who they are and how they handle stress,” Ehlert says. “An example is if a farmer or rancher meets with their lender and appears stressed and withdrawn, and at a follow-up meeting he announces he’s going to sell off everything — that should give the lender a clear sense that something is seriously wrong and that individual needs help.”

Other red flags include:

  • The farm or ranch all of a sudden seems in disarray or disorganized.
  • If the farmer or producer is quick to react to whatever you’re saying or seems extra negative.
  • If that person normally doesn’t smoke or smoke often and is now smoking excessively.
  • If he or she makes jokes about how much they’re drinking.
  • If the farmer or producer seems disheveled, unkempt and looks like he or she has stopped taking care of themselves.

“For farmers and ranchers, those are all things that they can look out for within themselves and their neighbors. If a neighbor stops showing up to church or to coffee at the local cafe, it’s time to stop by and check in to see how they are doing,” Ehlert says. “Often in rural communities your neighbor is five, 10, 15 miles away from you, but it’s important to take a moment and do a pulse check on yourself and what’s happening around you.”

Ehlert says many of the agriculture professionals that were at the workshops in April had concerns about handling those situations after spotting an issue on the farm.

“We’re not asking anyone in any situation to take on the role as a therapist. There are people who go to school specifically for that,” Ehlert says. “The workshops are focused on what you can say in those situations, how you can just be with someone and help, and these are also other resources that you can gear them towards. It’s really about providing scaffolding to support producers.”

Part of the professionals’ workshop involves practicing asking someone if they are thinking of taking their own life.

“It is a heavy and intense question, but you need to practice saying it,” Ehlert says. “Some people are really worried that by doing that you’re almost planting the idea to someone, but the evidence is that when you do ask someone if they’re thinking of taking their own life, it does not increase the risk of it happening and that person is often relieved that someone sees them and what they’re going through, and that someone cares.”

Ehlert and her colleagues are hoping for a strong turnout next week at the workshops, since an April blizzard and calving season impacted numbers a bit.

“Even though we did have a slightly lower turnout than we were hoping for that first round, having someone show up and walk away feeling more hopeful or better equipped to help the next farmer or rancher that they interact with … that’s our goal,” Ehlert says.

SDSU Extension plans to host more local workshops like this in the future as well as a larger statewide event, a rural mental health summit, with details forthcoming.

“We are ultimately trying to prevent people leaving the agricultural industry because of chronic stress and we’re also trying to prevent catastrophes from happening such as someone taking their own life but making it look like a farm accident,” Ehlert says. “Those are all realities that are happening nationwide and in South Dakota.”

For a farmer, producer or someone you know who needs help, Ehlert says the South Dakota Helpline Center has locations in Sioux Falls, Brookings and Rapid City. By texting “sdfarm” to 898211, you will reach the Helpline Center, the only entity in the state accredited by the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems and the only entity in the state that provides a certified crisis line through the American Association of Suicidology. It’s a number Ehlert keeps in her mobile phone contacts to share with other agribusiness professionals as well as producers.

Another place agribusiness professionals and farm families can go for help is Ted Matthews, a rural mental health practitioner for the state of Minnesota and counselor to hundreds of farmers and farm families. Matthews can be reached at 320-266-2390 or by visiting FarmCounseling.org.

For more stories on this topic, please visit our sister Farm Progress publication Prairie Farmer:

Why do farmers commit suicide?

All the land between happy and sad

10 truths about how farm families talk

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