Although she doesn’t remember the exact details, Char Henton recalls her first hotline call from a worried farmer in the midst of the farm crisis when record production led to a steep drop in commodity prices in 1985. The then-governor’s Farmers Assistance Counseling and Training Service resource was so new that Char didn’t even have a chair to sit in yet, so she talked to the man while she sat on the floor.
“During those times, people were being foreclosed on and making decisions to file bankruptcy without really understanding what options they might have,” says Henton, now a mediation coordinator with the K-State Research and Extension office. “My job was helping families put food on the table and pay utility bills.”
Henton now oversees the K-State hotline, where she often listens to farmers in crisis due to droughts, prairie fires and other catastrophic events. She refers them to mental health experts, lawyers and farm analysts. “We provide stress relief,” she says. “There’s someone to listen.”
When Tough Times Impact Mental Health
Today’s agricultural workers face some of the same stressors as in years past: fluctuating commodity prices, high operating costs, extreme weather, pandemics and working alone for long hours, to name a few. Such challenges can lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide.
“When we feel alone, we feel depressed and we overthink things,” says Mallory Meek, agriculture and natural resources agent for Douglas County. “Isolation in rural America really plays a role in the factors that affect our farming communities.”
To address these issues and others after last summer’s tornado in Douglas County, Meek’s department unveiled a new website, Mental Health in Agriculture, which posts links to local resources and information on topics ranging from identifying signs of stress and helping neighbors in need to fighting opioid addiction.
Meek has also seen an uptick in agricultural workers coming into the office to talk about their struggles. A sixth-generation farmer lost much of her equipment and her grain storage shed in the tornado and was worried about losing her farm and paying for her kids’ college. And when stock prices plummeted, one man’s wife encouraged him to get help. “She noticed that he wasn’t being as productive on the farm, that he was kind of being despondent,” Meek says, noting that both were directed to a local community mental health center for support.
See more: Mental Health Resources for Farmers
In December, the Kansas Department of Agriculture rolled out its Kansas Ag Stress Resources website to assist producers statewide who have been impacted by the recent trade war, the COVID-19 virus and other events out of their control. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a corn grower or a rancher,” says deputy secretary Kelsey Olson. “We can direct them to the same place for mental health resources.” Resources include a suicide prevention line and a crisis text line.
Olson grew up in a farm family where her parents openly talked about their frustrations, but she understands that not everyone does. Keeping a stiff upper lip is not necessary, she points out. “There’s no shame if you choose to get help,” she says. “In the ag industry, there are some very dedicated, hardworking individuals who tend to just put their heads down and get the job done no matter what. We want them to really think about themselves and getting the care and support that they need. Starting that conversation is a good part of the battle.”
Meek agrees. “It is OK to be stressed,” she says. “We will get through it together. We are here for you. Sometimes we don’t hear that enough in the agricultural world. We just need to treat it like a regular illness. We need to get to that point in the industry. It will take some time, but I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
Mental Health Resources for Those in Need
Douglas County Mental Health in Ag
Kansas State Mediation Help Line
Kansas Ag Stress Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Kansas Community Mental Health Centers
Mental health services in every county of the state in over 120 locations
Kansas Farm Bureau
Educational resources to help with stress management