MADISON, Wis. — During May and Mental Health Awareness Month, agriculture groups from around Wisconsin are coming together in efforts to reach farmers who may be struggling with their mental health.
Mental health issues are common in the farming industry.
Florence Becot, an associate research scientist in rural sociology with the National Farm Medicine Center, said there are a wide range of factors that cause the issue. Some are similar to any occupation, but others are specific to agriculture.
“For example, the unpredictability of working on a farm connected to the weather,” Becot said. “Unpredictability of what your commodity prices are going to be like, also for the fact that for some of those factors you don’t really have a choice.”
Becot pointed out recent years in the Midwest have been difficult for the weather with several flooding and high wind events. She also said commodity prices have often been low and unpredictable. Shifting trade policies when it comes to agriculture contribute to the stress.
“It is hard for farmers in particular when there are so many things that they can’t control,” Becot said.
For a lot of farmers today, the stress of the 1980s low commodity prices and the rash of farm closures still lingers. Particularly for those who were growing up during that time, Becot said. The compounding stress can have severe consequences if untreated.
“Farming as an occupation is one that has higher rates of suicide compared to other occupations for men,” Becot said.
This is part of the reason for the #FarmNeighborsCare campaign this month. The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation initiated the campaign and has been joined by the National Farm Medicine Center, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), more than a dozen trade groups around Wisconsin, and several other agriculture advocacy and business organizations.
People who work with farmers in Wisconsin say there is a stigma to reaching out for mental health assistance in the industry.
“That quietness is one of the things that creates some challenges sometimes, a lot of times the issues that are going on aren’t known by everybody and even the neighbors sometimes don’t know what’s going on on the farm, so it can be really challenging,” said Bradley Guse, senior vice president of agriculture banking at BMO Harris Bank.
Guse works with farmers every day for his job. He also works with the National Farm Medicine Center and is an instructor with agriculture schools for the Wisconsin Bankers Association.
Mental health is important to Guse, who lost a family member to death by suicide. He works with farm families going through similar tragedies.
“When a death by suicide happens on a farm oftentimes whether it’s in my community or a friend, family, that kind of stuff, I get called and I have some conversations with the folks that have been impacted,” Guse said.
Guse has been through mental health first aid training. It’s sort of like regular first aid, where you learn to spot problems and then inform medical professionals who can help the person.
It’s becoming a growing trend for people involved with agriculture to take training like that to help those around them struggling with their mental health.
“We’re not professionals, but we’re there to help them find that help that they may need by recognizing some of the issues they may have,” Guse said. “It’s about listening and understanding what’s going on and hearing sometimes the unsaid messages and recognizing the stress that’s there that’s going on.”
Part of the #FarmNeighborsCare campaign is to nominate a “Hero of Hope” someone who has helped another person through a difficult time.
Some of the help people can provide is to direct friends and loved ones to resources available to them. For farmers in Wisconsin, DATCP has a Farm Center that has several resources for farmers struggling with mental health.
“Our goal with this programming is to have the right service for the right farmer at the right time and the right location,” said Dan Bauer, the Farm Center supervisor.
The help the Farm Center provides is three-tiered. The first is the moment of need when the Farm Center staffs a 24-hour Farmer Wellness Hotline with licensed mental health professionals. It’s a free line where people can talk confidentially about struggles with depression, stress, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. The number is 1-888-901-2558.
The second tier is counseling. The Farm Center offers free confidential teleconferencing with a health professional in Wisconsin who specializes in working with farmers. The Farm Center offers sessions by appointment or over the phone or video calls.
“They can do a session with this counselor right from the comfort of their home,” Bauer said.
Farmers can access that resource by calling the Farmer Wellness Hotline or by calling the Farm Center Helpline at 1-800-942-2474.
The last tier of the Farm Center resources is subsidizing in-person counseling. The Farm Center has had a counseling voucher program for the past decade, and the use of it has grown significantly in that time. Now the vouchers are good for more than 200 counselors around the state in the vast majority of Wisconsin counties. The vouchers can be accessed by calling the Farm Center Helpline.
Bauer said the resources are available to help any farmer or agriculture worker having a hard time.
“We need to be able to express that vulnerability, be willing to ask for help, and really look for signs of need in ourselves, in our family and in our friends and coworkers,” Bauer said.
On Wednesdays, throughout May the #FarmNeighborsCare campaign is hosting webinars about different aspects of farmer mental health.
Becot said one of the most important things the farming community can do to combat mental health is talk about it.
“I think that this kind of initiative plays an important role in talking more openly about mental health challenges and again working on the stigma piece of mental health,” Becot said.