Staying Strong: Mental health becomes a concern as farmers and ranchers face ongoing adversity |

Staying Strong: Mental health becomes a concern as farmers and ranchers face ongoing adversity

Maria Tibbetts
Digital and Special Sections Editor
Photo by Jenny Stortz

Seeing the Signs

It’s important to recognize the signs of depression and anxiety, in yourself or loved ones, says Oehlke.

1. Sleep profile. Usually these folks struggle to sleep. They’re praying they can get to sleep to shut their brain down.

2. Losing interest in things.

3. Guilt becomes more of a burden.

4. Loss of hope.

5. Not wanting to get up and do things. Not getting the chores done on time. Not taking care of medical issues, not taking medication correctly.

6. Decreased appetite and weight loss

7. Expressing thoughts of self-harm. That’s an absolute emergency and needs to be addressed in some way.

To reach the Avera Farm and Ranch Rural Stress Hotline, call 1-800-691-4336. More information is available here.

“Sometimes when I’m driving, I consider just driving away and never looking back. I would be three states away before they knew I left.”

“I’m a failure because I can’t save my family’s farm.”

“I’m afraid our farm won’t be around for my kids to farm.”

These are some of the secrets America’s ag producers are carrying around. They submit these secrets anonymously online to “Our Ag Secrets” and Jessica Peters, a dairy farmer and the founder of the website, shares some of them on social media, offering support. That’s her rule. Anyone can comment, but offer only support or advice. No negative comments.

When Peters made a video called “Dear struggling farmer,” after a prominent local farmer in her Pennsylvania county committed suicide, the video was viewed more than a million times and she got thousands of responses, thanking her for sharing her story, and, often, telling her theirs.

“After that video I was a little more open on social media about the struggles we go through being farmers, being people, feeling like you’re not enough. Over the last year and a half of sharing these feelings, I realized just getting these things out of my head helps me out.”

The idea for the website was inspired by a man who invited people to send postcards of their secrets to him, and he posts some of them on his blog. “Some are heartbreaking, some are silly and stupid,” Peters said. But they all seem to be cathartic for the person writing them down.

“My ultimate goal was to make people feel less alone,” Peters said. “You just know if someone tells me what they think is a secret, someone else out there is feeling it too. On every single one of them, there’s someone else out there who comments, ‘I’ve been there too.’ I’ve gotten quite a few people who send me secrets and later private message me, saying they didn’t know how much it would help to see it written out and people accepting of it. So little of our general population understands what we do and what we go through. That’s isolating in itself.”

In an industry as physically isolated as agriculture, where people tend to spend a lot of time alone, it can take a toll on mental health, says Karl Oehlke, certified physician assistant at Avera Medical Group Psychiatry Associates and third generation farmer in South Dakota.

“Production agriculture can be a fairly autonomous business,” he said. “Whether on a horse or in a tractor, there’s a lot of alone time. That breeds rumination as far as what’s going to happen.”

In an environment like farmers and ranchers are facing now, with unprecedented uncertainty in the markets, changes in demand and the food supply chain, on top of some of the toughest years, weather-wise, in history, it weighs on people. Take away the usual social interaction, thanks to COVID-19—coffee shops, the feed store, baseball practice, track meets—and those thoughts, that can often be derailed by visiting with a friend, can become overwhelming.

Access to social media can help people stay connected, but it can also add stress, as consumers rail at producers and spread misinformation, friends share successes and it seems like everyone is doing better than you. For someone already in darkness, that can make it feel darker.

“Sometimes it’s best to just put down social media and go for a walk,” Oehlke said. “A lot of times what we’re seeing is false hope, which can be more devastating later. Be vigilant about what media you’re using.”

But when you do talk to someone, pay attention to what they’re saying.

“Connect with friends and family, listen to friends and family,” when they express concerns about your mental health, said Oehlke. “They’re on the outside looking in, and they’re hardly ever wrong.”

Amber Dykshorn, a farmer’s wife and insurance agent from Platte, South Dakota, was one of those on the outside looking in. She’d also struggled with depression her entire life, to the point of hospitalization to help her deal with it post-partum. Her husband, Chris, was the level one. “Chris had always seemed to have a calming affect on the kids, and me too.”

When her husband of 15 years began losing weight, not sleeping and saying things that expressed a level of frustration she’d never seen, Amber was concerned.

That was in the spring of 2019. They’d moved onto Chris’s parents’ farm two years earlier, and in 2018 things were looking good. They had a positive conversation with the banker and the accountant.

Then it started raining. Then a snowstorm hit and they lost a lot of calves and lambs, and even a few cows. Then it rained some more. Chris couldn’t plant anything, and by his birthday, on June 6, 2019, everyone was concerned about his mental health.

“He could handle things better than I could,” Amber said. “It was totally out of the normal for him.”

He was texting and Snapchatting with Amber, saying he wasn’t sure how much longer he could take it. “I kept trying to encourage him with different scriptures and quotes. I said, ‘We’re going to get through this.’”

When their banker texted and said he was concerned about Chris, Amber knew it wasn’t just a worried wife seeing a problem.

On his 35th birthday, Chris agreed to get help from a mental health professional. He went to the clinic in their hometown and did a telehealth call with the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline. They started Chris on an anti-depressant, and Amber was still hesitant to leave him alone. She was supposed to take their daughter to a doctor appointment in Sioux Falls to have the casts removed from her arms.

“He made the comment to me about not wanting to live anymore. His dad was going to be there, so he wouldn’t be alone. I called the clinic, and since Chris had mentioned harming himself, they activated a welfare check, and the sheriff came out. They took him to the local ER, then he was transferred to Avera Behavioral Health in Sioux Falls. He was there for four days. Monday night he called and said ‘I’m feeling good and am ready to come home. I just need to be there with you and the kids.’”

Amber picked him up on Tuesday and they had a relaxing day. Chris’s dad and brother had done the chores, but as they spent time together, she could see the weight on his mind was back.

On Wednesday she went to work, but checked in throughout the day. She came home early and Chris wrapped his arms around her and said, “I love you so much.” He went out to disc. It started to rain.

“He came in and said, ‘I can’t do it anymore. I can’t.’ He was breaking down. He was crying.

“We did chores together. We came in and talked about ways to make it work. Maybe sell some livestock and make it work. A good friend of Chris’s called and said, ‘you call me anytime if you need to talk to somebody.’

“That was the last conversation I had with him. The next morning, he went over to the other farm, where we have some livestock, and shot himself.”

The last search on Chris’s web browser was the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline. “He was debating it, but he didn’t call,” Amber said.

He had taken the antidepressant he’d been prescribed for six days—it takes a month to six weeks for most to be effective. The card that he carried, with the action plan he’d come up with at the mental health clinic for helping him deal with the stress, was on the kitchen counter.

“I firmly believe it was a decision he made and within 15 minutes, he carried it out,” Amber said. “I don’t think he could think correctly because he wasn’t sleeping. He wasn’t eating. His brain was starving of everything it needed. In my mind, it wasn’t the Chris I knew and loved who made that decision. He was so far in a dark place he couldn’t even see what was right in front of him. I know he would never have wanted his kids to live without him. The day he wrapped his arms around me, he said, ‘I’m such a burden to you.’ I said, ‘No you’re not. You are not. We’ve just gotta get you better.’”

That’s what Oehlke focuses on. The getting better. “I wish more people would tell their success stories,” he said. “But there is still a significant stigma with mental health with agriculture in general. We’re not only trying to get across the point that no one is alone in mental health, but we need to reduce the stigma.

“Every picture we see of agriculture is a resilient person with callused hands who isn’t in need of help. Farmers and ranchers are going to help anyone they see in need, except themselves.”

It’s not an easy conversation to start, but Oehlke encourages people who see someone struggling to ask them how they’re doing. “Ask if they’re eating, sleeping, feeling depressed. Ask if they’re going to hurt themselves. Studies show that asking about it doesn’t make them more suicidal. Starting that conversation doesn’t induce suicidality or a level of depression. Get these people talking. Once we can get these people talking we can open doors.”

As for safeguarding your own mental health, Oehlke said, “There’s an inverse proportion between responsibility and control in agriculture. Ag producers have a responsibility to family, animals, people you employ, but have very little control over weather, markets, global pandemic. You have to hand over some of that control. Leave it in God’s hands. Look at the good side of things. I’ve had more dinners with my kids and family in the last six weeks than in the last six years, because they don’t have practice every night and weekend. Take some solace in those things. Take solace in family, in the ability to walk around a farm or ranch. Take a step back. Dump that last load of cows on grass and watch the moms find the calves. Sit back and look at that. You’ve made it this far. A cow on green grass with a calf next to her is a pretty serene sight.”

And there’s always a solution, whether it’s one you like or not. Now, nearly a year after Chris made his final decision, Amber has worked with her father-in-law and brother-in-law to sell most of the livestock and the grain, and the $300,000 debt that was so daunting has been reduced to $50,000. Her 11-year-old son, who was always Dad’s chore hand, doesn’t want anything to do with the farm anymore.

Oehlke began working to start the Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline in the fall of 2018, prompted by the conditions he knew first-hand as a farmer. “The downturn in the markets, how tough harvest was, then the flooding, not being able to plant, a bad blizzard.”

The hotline has received between 450 and 500 calls since it started in January of 2019.

Callers to the hotline talk to a licensed, specially-trained professional whose goal is to figure out what callers need and how to get them that help. The call is free, anonymous and callers will reach a real person 24 hours a day.

Once they get connected with the right local resources, Oehlke says the care providers address each situation on an individual basis, taking into consideration all the patient’s concerns.

“Every treatment plan is individualized based on the patient’s comfort level with the utilization of medications and therapy. Within that individualized treatment plan I am extremely cautions with medications given ag producers’ safety concerns with the line of work they do, whether that’s operating heavy equipment, working with animals that can be less than cooperative at times, or the long hours they often put in. I work exceedingly hard to ensure they remain safe while also receiving benefit.”

Oehlke knows the struggles farmers and ranchers face, and does his best to make sure there are no major obstacles to keep them from getting the help they need. “You can’t put a dollar amount on your health, but we’re very cautious and usually prescribe generic meds that cost about $4 a month. We do have some foundation benefits to help some folks.” To help with time constraints, they offer telehealth appointments, so no one even has to walk into a clinic.

“That first call is the hardest to make, and it doesn’t cost anything,” Oehlke said.