Feb 20, 2020

Panelists sound alarm on farm family stress, mental health

Posted Feb 20, 2020 12:01 PM
From left: Panelist Jessie Wyrill, farm owner near Kirwin, and JoEllyn Argabright, Extension agent and farm owner from Rawlins County, and Dr. Lauren Mack, Plainville veterinarian, talked about mental health challenges farmers are facing at the Hope in the Heartland conference Feb. 8 at FHSU.
From left: Panelist Jessie Wyrill, farm owner near Kirwin, and JoEllyn Argabright, Extension agent and farm owner from Rawlins County, and Dr. Lauren Mack, Plainville veterinarian, talked about mental health challenges farmers are facing at the Hope in the Heartland conference Feb. 8 at FHSU.

Hays Post

Farmers are struggling with mental health issues and mental health providers are going to have to go to them if they hope to get people help, a panel of local women in agriculture told a recent conference on mental health.

High Plains Mental Health with a grant from the Robert E. and Patricia A. Schmidt Foundation sponsored "Hope in the Heartland" conference on Feb. 8 on the FHSU campus in Hays to focus on mental health issues for farmers, ranchers and others in the ag industry.

Suicides among farmers have soared, and low commodity prices and increasing input prices are creating increasing stress on families who make their livings from agriculture.

Between 2014 and 2017, the suicide rate in the 20 northwest counties served by High Plains Mental Health increased by 64 percent.

Panelist Dr. Lauren Mack, Plainville veterinarian, Jessie Wyrill, farm owner at Kirwin, and JoEllyn Argabright, Extension agent and farm owner from Rawlins County, talked about challenges farmers are facing.

Mack, who regularly works with ranchers and cattle in her practice, said she regularly interacts with ranchers in the field who are discouraged and mentally and physically stressed.

"There is a lot of pride and a lot of stigma that we have to work through, she said. "I have a few cattlemen that will say something to me, but I will say, 'I am not your resource. Can I help you find something?' Then that step is a hard step to take."

She has had cattlemen ask her about their physical health rather than go to an MD. She had a man pass out in a field during a herd check.

"I've had people with heart problems. I was like 'This is too hot. We shouldn't be doing this,' and they'll do it anyway because that's their life," Mack said. "So crossing that barrier to that mental side is going to take some sensitivity on providers parts."

Farming is a lifestyle

Before the panel started, the conference goers watched a video that included farmers talking about mental health issues. Argabright said one aspect of the video that stood out to her was the woman in the video talking about how farming is a calling.

Argabright said understanding farming is a lifestyle and not just a business is important to understanding farm culture.

"There are things that data can't do for us," she said. "We know we live in places with high risk factors. We know the data says we've got problems, but there is a reason we live here and there is a reason we do it. 

"When you are going to come in and talk to this population and us as a culture, you are going to have to flip that switch and understand there is a different way to go about the things we talk about and the way that we do them."

No escape from stress

Wyrill noted farm families are never really able to get away from the stress on a farm. 

"There is always that stigma that I need to be strong for the rest of the family for the farmer. If its male, he's trying to be strong for his whole family," Wyrill said. "The farm mom is going to try to be strong for her kids. No one is looking to break down and go get help because we are too busy and no one wants to admit they are not strong enough."

Wyrill said isolation also played a significant role in getting farmers the help they need. Farm families are busy, and they often don't take the time to be social. 

"It's not just a job. It's our life and we can't get away from it," she said.

Mack said financial stressors are significant in many farmers' and ranchers' lives. She said cattlemen want to take care of their animals, but they may not be able to afford all of the vet bills. She said said she thinks farmers feel guilty about that.

"Otherwise I feel like I spend a lot of time giving people pep talks," she said. "They come and say, 'I've got dead calves.' If you went through last winter as a calf operation, you know you lost a lot. It is the hardest year since '93 is what I hear.  Losing those animals is heartbreaking."

 All she could tell cattlemen last year was "be glad you don't live in Nebraska."

"You have this healthy group. Let's hope the price goes up. You say the word hope," she said. "I use that word a lot to try to give people a positive outlook, but that's exhausting."

SEE RELATED STORY: Ag financial downturn taking toll on farmer mental health

Multiple hats

Living in a farm family, Argabright said she wears multiple hats.

"I'm a mom. I'm a farm wife, and I'm an Extension professional. When I wear my work hat home, I'm thinking rural sustainability. We've got to figure out how to keep our communities going. We know we have some major issues. We have population exodus. We have infrastructure issues. We've got workforce gaps. 

"I sit down and look at my husband and say we also have these problems at home. We just got done with tax season and we talked about that snowball effect. Let's just put that out a little bit further."

As a mom, she said it is hard not to put a guilt trip on her husband. They have small children. Her husband works 100 hours a week. He comes home exhausted. 

"I want [my children] to respect hard work is a part of life, but I also want them to have a dad," she said.

Stress as physical symptoms

Wyrill, who is on the Phillips County Hospital Board, said primary care providers need to be aware of the stress farmers are under. Mental health issues may be showing up as physical signs.

Weather affects farmers in profound ways and causes circumstances they can't control. Wyrill told the story about her father's friend who visited the doctor repeatedly and his physician couldn't determine what was causing his symptoms. A rain broke a prolonged drought, and the systems went away.

"I have had friends who were going to check their fields with canoes," she said. "You can't fix that. It's just there every day."

High Plains Mental Health Executive Director Walt Hill asked the panel what medical and mental health providers need to know about farmers and ranchers when they come into their offices.

Reaching out to farmers

Argabright said farmers are going to need to be approached where they are. That's at seed meetings, through people they trust or a sound bite they have to listen to because they are there for something else, she said.

Mack said using people who are already engrained in the community will be essential for reaching farmers. That includes local medical providers, friends, family members, other farmers and Extension agents. 

"You can't bring someone from even Hays to Plainville," she said.

Wyrill is trying to connect farm and ag families through a program at the Phillips County Hospital called Farm Life Connections. The hospital brought in a representative from High Plains Mental Health to talk about farm stress at one of these meetings. 

They have also addressed topics such as heat stroke, skin cancer, CPR, first aid and heart health. 

Maintaining privacy

The panel discussed the issue of stigma and shame and Mack said maybe all the walls should not be broken down. Farmers should be allowed to keep their mental health status private, she said.

Farmers have Smart phones and many are very comfortable with technology. She suggested providers connect with farmers through video on phones so they could reach them in the fields.

Hill said High Plains Mental Health has 50 sites in northwest Kansas where it provides telehealth via video conferencing. He said work still needs to be done to bring Medicare regulations up to speed with the use of telemedicine in rural areas.

Argabright said the interconnection of residents' lives is one of a rural community's greatest strengths.

"We are amazing at throwing chicken dinner feeds to support our neighbors and our friends and people in need and this really isn't a throw-me-a-chicken-dinner [problem]," she said. "I appreciate your comment on respect for privacy."

Rural communities need resources they are able to accept, Argabright said. She said local communities need to be involved in growing their own solutions.

Seeking help

High Plains Mental Health Center is headquartered in Ellis County in downtown Hays. The center also has five full-time branch offices in Goodland, Colby, Norton, Phillipsburg and Osborne with community outreach offices in St. Francis, Atwood, Oberlin, Smith Center, Plainville, Hill City, Hoxie, Oakley, Quinter, WaKeeney, Russell, La Crosse and Ness City. Wallace County residents can access center resources through a Televideo Conferencing unit at the hospital.

To make appointments, call the main telephone line at 1-800-432-0333 or 785-628-2871.

Branch office phone numbers can be found on the High Plains website.

High Plains has a 24-hour crisis line that can be reached at 1-800-432-0333. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The national suicide crisis text line can be reached at 741741.

Other online resources:

  1. American Association of Suicidology
  2. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
  3. National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
  4. National Council of Mental Health
  5.  7 Cups of Tea (Free to use if you live in the High Plains service area)