Nebraska’s Rural Response Hotline Provides Hope and Help to Ag Families in Crisis

By Ruth Wiechmann

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Let’s face it: mental health and suicide risk and prevention are not often discussed among neighboring farmers or ranchers over a cup of coffee. We’ll talk about what vaccines to give for fall shots, how the fall harvest is going, the latest fencing project to complete before winter, and the bull with the bad limp we just hauled to town, but not mental health issues. We don’t readily open up about the deepest fears we carry inside. We don’t often talk about the struggles that overwhelm us. We’re strong, we’re stoic, and when we struggle financially, emotionally, or relationally we tend to think we’re the only ones with problems. Surely our neighbors have it all together. The subject of suicide and mental health is shrouded with stigma, yet some data suggests that farmers commit suicide at a higher rate than other segments of the population.

Farmers and ranchers hold a strong emotional connection to this work of agricultural production. Maybe it’s living on the quarter that his great-grandfather homesteaded. The cows that were her wedding present from her dad. The shelterbelt that she hoed, watered, and weed-badgered for a decade and a half. The hours spent riding in the tractor with his dad, his grandpa, and his big brother. The pairs they bought when they were newlyweds.

Farming or ranching is not a job. It’s our identity. It’s our past. It’s our future. It’s our life. Heaven forbid that we should lose the place.

Making a living off the land with crops and livestock is a life beautiful, yet fraught with stress. The weather and the markets are completely beyond our control, and the return for the collateral invested and the long hours of labor is often minimal. One hailstorm can wipe out a year’s profits in half an hour. Added to natural disasters: blizzards, floods, fires; the men and women in agricultural production are dependent on ever fluctuating commodity prices and an unsteady cattle market for their annual wages.

It’s not an easy road. These high stress levels combined with our rural tendency to isolate and face our problems on our own can be the perfect storm that leads to tragedy.

In the early 1980’s interest rates skyrocketed, land values plummeted, and many farm families were in a crisis situation. Interchurch Ministries in Nebraska knew that help was needed. It would not be possible to provide funds to alleviate the debt burden, and the problems causing the farm crisis would not go away quickly, but they set out with the goal of connecting people in need with resources that could help shed light on solutions and bring hope in hopeless situations. In 1984 a coalition was formed including Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska, Nebraksa Farmers’ Union, the Methodist Church, the National Farmers Organization, Nebraska Grange, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, Legal Aid of Nebraska, Women in Farm Economics, and the UN-L Ag Extension Division. These diverse groups along with several Ag lenders worked together to set up the Nebraska Rural Response Hotline to connect people with dire needs to sources of help.

“We thought we would just help get folks through the ag economy crisis at the time,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers’ Union, “But we’re still going strong. There has never been a time when there wasn’t a need.”

In 2019 Nebraska has seen a huge need for the Rural Response Hotline following fierce blizzards and flooding that surpassed five hundred year records. Coupled with the devastation of the floods farmers are facing the seventh year in a row with commodity prices at or below the cost of production.

Hansen gets an inside look at the numbers and he says the picture isn’t pretty.

“We set a record last year for first time financial stress callers,” he said, “and we see that trend continuing this year. Probably five to ten percent of ag loans in Nebraska didn’t get renewed this year. Last year, we saw a total of twenty-seven farms filing Chapter 12; this year we were already at that number in July. It has been a really busy year but also very rewarding.”

He said that the financial crisis is hitting Nebraskans across the spectrum.

“There were three or four years there that many well established ranch families in the Sandhills survived on food pantries,” Hansen said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a big operator or a little guy, whether you have grain or livestock. Our total farm debt on a national level is the highest since 1981. If you have some equity you can kind of get through, but if your cash flow is consistently short and your equity is eroding you can go from a pretty strong balance sheet to dangerously high debt to asset ratios pretty quickly. Many farmers or ranchers find themselves riding a losing hand year after year.”

According to a survey done by Farm Bureau and Morning Consult, most farmers and ranchers do believe that stress associated with financial difficulties, business problems, fears of losing the place, and factors outside their control such as weather do affect their mental health, even though they don’t often talk about it.

Sometimes that dreaded letter coming from the bank is the tipping point for someone to finally make the call for help.

Hotline staff members are trained to sort through what a caller may initially bring up to try to find the issue at the root of each person’s crisis.

Hansen says that a simple question such as ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ can help a staff member begin to sort through the caller’s real needs. If the response is ‘Nothing’ the staff member can follow up with ‘What do you have in the cupboard or refrigerator?’ If the answer is again, ‘Nothing’ they will ask ‘Do you have children?’ and ‘Where are they eating?’ to find out more about the scope of the crisis.

“People don’t call because there’s no food in the house, they call because they got a letter from the bank,” Hansen said. “There’s a lot of skill involved in getting each caller to open up about the problems they are dealing with. Our staff is so experienced and so good at what they do. Nebraskans don’t like to ask for help.”

The coalition behind the Rural Response Hotline has help to offer ranging from legal counsel to pastoral care, food for empty cupboards to counseling vouchers to farm mediation.

“This is a collaborative effort between the farm and church communities,” Hansen said. “Because of this high level of networking we are able to meet more needs. We are plugged in to the food pantry system. With funding through the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services we are able to provide vouchers for mental health counseling with ag-knowledgeable professionals across the state. We work with the Nebraska Department of Agriculture to help people plug into all kinds of resources. We sponsor financial workshops.”

Occasionally the Hotline team does field suicide calls. Sometimes the results of the conversation are lifesaving. Not always.

“We do get calls of desperation,” Hansen said. “When people hit that point of financial crisis, all the rest of the wheels start falling off.”

Hansen said that having a community that cares can make a difference. Dramatic mood swings, expressions of hopelessness or helplessness, inability to perform daily tasks, depression, withdrawal from friends, family and normal activities, social isolation, agitation, irrational behavior, paranoia, preoccupation with death, verbal threats, abusive or violent behavior including threats to self or others, substance abuse, talking as if they’re saying goodbye forever, giving away personal possessions, statements like “Nothing matters anymore,” “You’ll be better off without me,” or “Life isn’t worth living,” can all be warning signs that someone is struggling.

“Be aware,” he said. “If you notice signs of withdrawal in family members or neighbors, stop by and check on them. Ask how they’re doing.”