Beyond the Weather: Montana Launches Agricultural Mental Health Outreach
Just as a rancher would never neglect a sick calf, nor a farmer his broken-down tractor, so should agriculturalists never neglect their mental wellbeing, according to Montana Department of Agriculture Director Christy Clark. On April 15, the state launched their mental health outreach for agriculture producers, called Beyond the Weather.
Suicide rates in the state of Montana have been in the top five in the nation for the past three decades, and suicide rates among farmers and ranchers are higher than the national average. Of course, those statistics reflect the only quantifiable–and dreaded–result of ongoing mental health issues. However, there are many reasons to seek the resources now available to Montana ranchers, including stress, sleepless nights, seasonal depression, and not feeling oneself.
The federal government awarded a grant for this project, available to all state Departments of Agriculture. For Montana, the program was modeled after Wisconsin’s and broken into three specific sections. The first included mini-grants to be awarded for mental health speakers to appear at various conventions. Clark says, “That was really well-received. Those conventions that typically wouldn’t have a mental health speaker, like Grain Growers or Farm Bureau, were able to take advantage of that.”
The second section consists of a media campaign to begin breaking down the stigma and to start the conversation about mental health. The Northern Broadcasting System has coined the phrase “Beyond the Weather” to recognize the topic and depth of a usual conversation among farmers: the weather. Their goal is to encourage those in agriculture to dig deeper, to begin checking on their neighbors, and most importantly, themselves.
Finally, the third section gives access to mental healthcare to producers unlike ever before. While some may not have the time to drive to town for counseling every week, this program offers telecounseling. They have partnered with Frontier Psychiatry, bringing counselors with a knowledge of the nuances of agriculture forward to offer their services to farmers and ranchers.. After doing a simple intake, anyone can then receive counseling via Zoom or over the phone, depending on their preference, at no cost to them.
“We launched on April 15th, and within a matter of days, we had people that had reached out. The majority of them had not ever sought mental health support before. I feel like this is working. It’s been well-received, and we are very excited that people are taking advantage of this,” 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 saying, ‘I had no idea,’ ‘She was always the first one to help everybody,’ and ‘If I only would have known.” We haven’t talked enough about it. That’s what the media is about and the speakers are for. Let’s break down some of the stigma and start those conversations. When we start to talk about it, we realize that my neighbor has had similar feelings,” she says.
Part of the stigma may come from the independence of those in agriculture. Producers can be geographically isolated, as well as emotionally. Neighbors may see each other at spring brandings, but otherwise, it is often that every man fends for himself on his own operation. Agriculture is also family-oriented, so it can be difficult to reach outside the family for help.
Many factors can contribute to stress for a producer: ongoing drought, extreme blizzards, wildfires, finances, family relations, and the list goes on. “The volatility of the markets is really destabilizing for people, not knowing what impact the war in Ukraine is going to have on commodity prices, struggling to get inputs like seed and fertilizer […] There’s just so many unknowns. It’s hard to predict what problem is going to come up tomorrow,” Clark says. What’s more, an agriculturalist can never “clock out” of their job. Constant worry and stress can take its toll.
“It’s hard to set time aside 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 in with yourself and check in with your neighbors. You really are the most important part. You would never neglect a sick cow, or a sick horse, or a tractor with a Check Engine light. We need to apply that same level of care to ourselves and to our neighbors.”
North Dakota also received the grant and will launch their program, Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network in the future. South Dakota accepted funding for their Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline (1-800-691-4336). Minnesota and Iowa are also working on initiatives.
If anybody wants to access mental health resources in Montana, they can go to BeyondTheWeather.com, fill out a simple intake or call a number, 406-200-8471, and then press 7.
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