FFA Member Helps Farm Community Start Mental Health Conversation | TSLN.com

FFA Member Helps Farm Community Start Mental Health Conversation

Lura Roti

Worry. Stress. Anxiety. Depression. These feelings are not isolated to adults. Teens understand them too, explains McCook Central FFA member Kayle Lauck.

“I understand what it is like to be anxious or sick to my stomach because I’m worried about something. It’s on a different scale than what farmers have to deal with today, but I understand,” Lauck says.

Determined to help agriculture producers in her community begin a conversation around mental health and realize they are not alone in the challenges they face, Lauck organized a community event, “Let’s Talk: Learn How to Identify Stress and Support Producers.”

“The goal is to have an excuse to start a conversation,” Lauck explains. “So many are afraid to go and begin a conversation about this issue.”

More than 150 attended the Feb. 3 event Lauck helped organize with help from her FFA advisers and more than 15 McCook Central FFA members. In addition to a meal, the event featured resource booths and presenters: Karl Oehlke, physician assistant with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates, who led a discussion around mental health and how to help yourself and those you love; and Kurt Stiefvater, a Salem farmer who spoke about soil health and benefits he has seen on his farm.

The science behind the event

So, what motivates a 16-year-old to host an event focused on mental health? The FFA Agri-Science Fair. Since seventh grade, Lauck has competed successfully in this FFA career development event. She received national recognition in 2017 and 2018.

Those first three years her projects focused on environmental science. When she was looking for a new research focus, she decided to turn her attention to the human side of agriculture. “My mom and I were looking for topics and she found a short article on suicide in the farming community,” Lauck says. “There wasn’t much research out about it.”

So, she decided to put together a confidential survey. What she learned from the 300 rural citizens who took the survey was sobering. “There were 15 people who had known someone who committed suicide,” she explains. “Over one-in-10 have been impacted by losing someone to suicide. To me, that is a staggering amount, especially in a rural community. If one is impacted, you know the entire community is impacted.”

Through her research, she also visited one-on-one with farmers. “I talked with farmers who went through the ’80s. Many told me that their pride kept them from going and seeking help. I think the stigma stops people from going and starting the conversation,” Lauck says.

She came up with the idea for the Feb. 3 event after attending a farm stress summit in Oacoma. “I thought, what if something was held in our community to offer solutions.”

She called her FFA adviser on her drive home and received her go-ahead. “I think an event like this brings a community feel and opens the door for discussion, rather than keeping the topic private,”

says Tracy Chase, science and agriculture education teacher/McCook Central FFA adviser.

Stiefvater agrees. “There’s a lot of stress going on in farm communities,” explains the fourth-generation Salem farmer and soil health presenter. “From the weather we have experienced the last two years, to the markets, financial resources are getting stretched.”

During the event, FFA members served farmers and their families, providing an opportunity for community members to reconnect and begin a conversation around this challenging topic. Event sponsors included First Dakota, National FFA, NuGen, NRCS, Wilbur Ellis, Puthoff’s Repair and Services and Fleet Farm.

Because of the fact that everyone knows everyone in rural communities, reaching out to a local professional over mental health concerns may be awkward. Another easy option is the Farmers Stress Hotline, 800-691-4336. Confidential and free, the service is available 24/7 and will help farmers, ranchers or their supporters connect with mental health services.

What are the symptoms? How do you know if you or someone you love needs help? Oehlke shares a list of symptoms to review:

Sleep: It is a misnomer that those who are depressed sleep incessantly. In fact, the majority of people experiencing an adjustment anxiety or depressive disorder pray for sleep. “They cannot turn off the gerbil wheel,” Oehlke says.

Interest: Not participating in activities you used to, or not enjoying certain activities you used to enjoy. Maybe you used to attend every basketball game or go to the elevator for coffee and you aren’t doing those things anymore or they don’t bring you joy when you do make an effort.

Guilt: Farmers or ranchers may experience fear that they will not be able to provide for their family. “In agriculture there is often an inverses proportion of responsibility and control. Basically, a huge amount of responsibility and very little control over aspects like weather, tariffs and renewable fuels. There are also a lot of succession concerns. How did Grandpa make it through the Dirty Thirties or Dad in the ’80s, how come 2019 is the time we lose the farm.”

Energy: Not having the energy to do what you need to do.

Concentration or focus: Distracted easily. Unable to focus or concentrate. Not able to make decisions. Making frequent mistakes.

Lack of Appetite: Losing weight or gaining weight due to unhealthy eating habits.

Suicidal thinking: Thoughts or plans of hurting oneself.

If you or someone you love needs help, reach out to the Farmers Stress Hotline, 800-691-4336. Confidential and free, the service is available 24/7 and will help farmers, ranchers or their supporters connect with mental health services.

–South Dakota Farmers Union