Bad weather and financial stress are hitting South Dakota’s farmers and rural community members hard this year, and it is taking a toll on farmers’ and ranchers’ mental health across South Dakota.
Walt Bones, a fourth-generation farmer near Parker who is the former State Secretary of Agriculture, said he started noticing the need for mental health services specific to farmers about a year or two ago. Farmers are creatures of habit, and when you can’t plant and harvest at the same times that you normally do, it can cause extra stress, he said.
“The hardest part for farmers seeking help is they don’t know what is available. There is also a stigma to mental health, but there shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, there is,” Bones said. “In small towns, everybody knows everybody. Farmers are a proud and independent group. We pride ourselves in being able to handle a variety of different situations, but this is a little different type of issue.”
Bones encourages farmers to talk to and lean on someone, for example a spouse, or pastor or to call an anonymous helpline.
“There’s help out there and when in doubt don’t push it,” Bones said. “Try to lean on someone and share with someone.”
Avera Health created the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline, available at 1-800-691-4336, in December 2018.
Paige Thompson, CSW-PIP at Avera in Sioux Falls, said that the hotline is specific to farmer’s needs. The service connects farmers with counselors, over-the-phone support, and resources to help with other needs the farmer may have.
Thompson said the hotline is where things start, and counselers get the caller to where they need to be to get the help that they need. Future services localize assistance outside of Avera. The assistance can be anything from childcare to providing agricultural resources to get the farmers connected with people in various areas of the agricultural industry.
“The hotline is being specific to the farmers’ needs,” Thompson said. “Right now, we are not only seeing farmers, but crop insurance adjusters, small business owners, seed companies and everyone in rural communities that are affected by this.”
In a press release from Avera, Dr. Matthew Stanley, clinical vice president for the Avera Behavioral Health Service Line, said, “Farmers are expected to be tough, but that ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps’ mentality is so unfair to them. Mental health care in our rural population is what we specialize in and we want our agricultural friends to know that we are here for them.”
Extension Mental Health Specialist Dr. Andrea Bjornestad explained that South Dakota State University Extension is offering multiple workshops to help educate farmers and those involved in the agricultural industry about mental health and dealing with stress.
“I would say chronic stress is one of the most common issues that farmers are struggling with,” Bjornestad said. “This is leading to an increase in depression and anxiety.”
Amy Sanderson, clinical director of Northeastern Mental Health Center in Aberdeen, said her organization has been offering free services for farmers and their family members. Sanderson said it is a key for farmers who are dealing with stress, anxiety and depression to stay connected and reach out even when they don’t feel like it.
“It is important for friends and family to watch out for one another – and if they notice changes in mood or not working as hard, increasing alcohol intake and increased physical issues, or if people are being more distant than usual,” Sanderson said. It is important to encourage that person to reach out or if it is a family member, reach out for them.”
Another resource available to rural community members is being provided by the Community Mental Health Center.
Tia Kafka, communications director for the South Dakota Department of Social Services in Pierre, said the outreach being done by the Community Mental Health Center include community mental health staff doing public education, raising awareness around signs and symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as ensuring that people who are working with farmers also have access to the resources.
“Both weather conditions and trade wars have contributed to the challenges farmers are facing,” Kafka said. “They are impacting our farming community’s ability to maintain and sustain their way of life. This in turn impacts the farmer’s overall mental health and stress level.”
Gov. Kristi Noem addressed this issue in the column, “Addressing the Stigma Around Mental Health.” As a lifelong farmer and rancher, Noem understands the challenges that producers are facing and what is like to feel like your entire family’s legacy is riding on your shoulders.
“Too often, there is a stigma surround mental health,” Noem said. “While this is true across the board, it’s especially true when we talk about mental health among agricultural producers. That’s unfair. Life is tough, and when you feel like you’re playing a losing hand, depression or anxiety is more common than you may think.”
Here’s a look at resources available for farmers:
• Avera Health’s 24/7 Farm and Rural Stress Hotline: 1-800-691-4336
• Community Mental Health Center: dss.sd.gov
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800.-273-TALK (8255)
• Helpline Center by dialing 211 or texting “SDFARM” to 898211
• SDSU Extension Office: https://extension.sdstate.edu