Just as a rancher would never neglect a sick calf, nor a farmer his broken down tractor, farmers should never neglect their mental well-being, according to Christy Clark, director of the Montana Department of Agriculture. On April 15, the state launched its mental health awareness program for agricultural producers, called Beyond the Weather.
Suicide rates in the state of Montana have been among the top five in the nation for the past three decades, and suicide rates among farmers and ranchers are above the national average. Of course, these statistics reflect the only quantifiable – and dreaded – outcome of ongoing mental health issues. However, there are many reasons to seek out the resources now available to Montana ranchers, including stress, sleepless nights, seasonal depression, and feeling down.
The federal government provided a grant for this project, available to all state departments of agriculture. For Montana, the program was modeled on that of Wisconsin and divided into three specific sections. The first included mini-grants to be awarded to mental health speakers scheduled to appear at various conventions. Clark says, “It was very well received. Conventions that typically didn’t have a speaker on mental health, such as Grain Growers or Farm Bureau, were able to take advantage of this.
The second section is a media campaign to start breaking the stigma and starting the conversation about mental health. The Northern Broadcasting System coined the phrase “Beyond the Weather” to recognize the subject and depth of a common conversation among farmers: the weather. Their goal is to encourage farmers to dig deeper, to start watching their neighbors and, most importantly, themselves.
Finally, the third section gives producers access to mental health care like never before. While some may not have the time to travel to town each week for advice, this program offers telecounseling. They have partnered with Frontier Psychiatry, bringing in advisors who know the nuances of farming to offer their services to farmers and ranchers. After making a simple take, anyone can then receive counseling via Zoom or phone, whichever they prefer, at no cost to them.
“We launched on April 15, and within days we had people reaching out to us. The majority of them had never asked for mental health support before. I feel like that It’s been well received and we’re thrilled that people are enjoying it,” Clark says.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever attended the funeral of someone in agriculture who has committed suicide, but the church tends to be overflowing with neighbors and friends who say, ‘I had none. idea”, “She was always the first to help everyone”, and “If only I had known”. We haven’t talked about it enough. That’s what media and speakers are for. Let’s break some of the stigma and start those conversations. When you start talking about it, you realize that my neighbor had similar feelings,” she says.
Part of the stigma may come from the independence of farmers. Producers can be isolated geographically, but also emotionally. Neighbors can see each other during spring markings, but otherwise it’s often everyone to fend for themselves on their own farm. Farming is also family-oriented, so it can be difficult to get help outside of the family.
Many factors can contribute to a grower’s stress: persistent drought, extreme blizzards, wildfires, finances, family relationships, etc. “The market volatility is really destabilizing for people, not knowing what impact the war in Ukraine will have on commodity prices, struggling to get inputs like seeds and fertilizers […] There are so many unknowns. It’s hard to predict what problem will arise tomorrow,” Clark says. Moreover, a farmer can never “get out” of his work. Constant worry and stress can take their toll.
“It’s hard to set aside time to really check in with ourselves. When was the last time I slept soundly or jumped out of bed with a spring in my step? We need to put that focus back on ourselves […] Check with yourself and check with your neighbors. You really are the most important part. You would never overlook a sick cow, a sick horse, or a tractor with a Check Engine Light. We must apply the same level of care to ourselves and our neighbors. »
North Dakota also received the grant and will launch its program, Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, in the future. South Dakota has accepted funding for their Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline (1-800-691-4336). Minnesota and Iowa are also working on initiatives.
If anyone wants to access mental health resources in Montana, they can go to BeyondTheWeather.com, fill out a simple application, or call one number, 406-200-8471, then press 7.