By CRISTINA JANNEY
Tariff wars, low commodity prices, weather and isolation all take their toll on farmers and rural residents who depend on the agriculture economy.
Those stresses are starting to show in some alarming statistics in northwest Kansas.
Between 2014 and 2017, the suicide rate in the 20 northwest counties served by High Plains Mental Health increased by 64 percent. In addition, a Centers for Disease Control study released in July 2016 reported farmers, fisherman and forestry workers as a group had the highest suicide rate of any occupation in the U.S.
High Plains Mental Health is trying to reach out to this affected population through new printed materials, telemedicine services and Mental Health First Aid training.
The suicide rates are not just getting attention from community mental health professionals.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., championed the Farmers First Act, part of the most recent Farm Bill. The act establishes helplines and suicide prevention training for farm advocates, and re-establishes the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network through state departments of agriculture, state Extension services and nonprofits.
“We don’t know completely,” David Anderson, High Plains director of clinical services, said when asked why he thought the number of suicides had jumped. “I think we believe certainly the farm economy plays a role in that. It may be that they are being more accurately counted. There was certainly a time, because of the stigma around suicide, that corners, particularly in small communities, there was some desire to not attach a suicide to a what might have been called an accidental death.”
Brenda Seaman, High Plains assistant clinical director, comes from a farm family. She says she sees farmers facing many circumstances that are out of their control.
“What other profession do you have where you certainly don’t know what the commodity price will be for the product that you are making every year?” she said. “It could be $15 soybeans. It could be $6 soybeans. You don’t know when you plant them.”
If the price is good, that usually means other growers have had catastrophic crop loss due to weather. Regardless of the price of the commodity, the input prices go up every year.
“The weather is out of your control,” Seaman continued. “The overall political environment is out of your control, so now there is tariffs and trade wars. These are not predictable.”
Seaman said communities and loved ones should also remember those families whose livings depend on agriculture, because when the ag economy is down, they suffer too.
Farming is not an easy profession to walk away from when you are one of multiple generations who have lived on and worked a piece of land, Anderson said. There is an emotional attachment to the land.
“It is not just the economy of ‘Can you make this work?'” he said,” but it is the pressure of generations. This has been in the family for a long period of time. You don’t want to be the person who ends up losing that land or the farm.”
Technology is requiring fewer people to operate farms and farms are consolidating.
“My wife’s family farm is out near Collyer,” Anderson said. “Thirty years ago, there used to be several family farms in that area. Now there aren’t.
“More of the land is rented. Instead of a community of families in the area who relied on each other and helped each other, there may be more isolation. We know that across populations that is one of the factors that increases depression, anxiety and the risk for suicide.”
Population loss in rural Kansas counties is only projected to increase, further worsening isolation and leading to the lose of vital services for rural families, including local schools, hospitals and grocery stores.
Stigma is a serious impediment for farmers to receive help in a mental health crisis, Anderson said. They consider themselves independent, resilient and self-reliant, and it can be difficult for them to admit they need help.
Although rates are on the rise in Kansas for women, suicides in Kansas were highest among white men, age 25 to 64. During the farm crisis in the 1980s, Anderson said mental health workers were encouraged to try reach out to farm wives to reach men in farming communities that may be at risk.
High Plains is implementing a similar strategy today by putting information and resources in the hands of people who interact with farmers and their families the most.
A new brochure titled “Hope in the Heartland” is being made available to extension agents, rural bankers and grain elevators.
Kaley Connor, High Plains marketing director, said local county governments have reached out to the agency for Mental Health First Aid training courses for their employees. The 8-hour course helps to prepare people to help individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.
“A lot of what we are doing with the pamphlet and Mental Health First Aid is trying to raise awareness and break down the stigma surrounding mental health services — that it is OK to reach out for help if you are struggling, that mental illness is a real illness and it needs to be taken seriously. It is not a sign of weakness if you need to reach out to somebody.”
Farmers’ and ranchers’ schedules are also often not conducive for out-patient therapy visits. However, telemedicine, satellite clinics, and partnerships with rural hospitals and clinics are making mental health care increasingly accessible for rural residents.
The vast majority of clients are seen in the community on an outpatient basis, Anderson said. If a person who is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts can ensure their safety, they will likely not be admitted to a hospital. Even those who do receive in-patient treatment for depression usually have very short stays.
If you or someone you know is at immediate risk of suicide, call 911. Call High Plains at 1-800-432-0333 to get started with a mental health screening or to access crisis services, which are available 24/7 with a qualified mental health professional.
High Plains also offers a sliding-fee scale for services based on income.