Mental Health for Agriculture
Scott C. Hayes, LCSW, Executive Director, Fremont Counseling Service
Mental illness and addiction do not discriminate - young, old, male, female, rich or poor. Nor does it discriminate among professions: bankers, teachers, construction workers, and yep, farmers and ranchers. Each person’s mindset affects how they may react, however, when faced with the realization that something might not be right, and it’s not a broken bone.
Things that might keep a person or family from actively seeking help or treatment include concerns about their reputation in the community, lack of understanding about what services do and how they work, having grown up with the idea of not seeking help from social agencies, lack of money, feeling that one must solve one’s own problems, fear of being perceived as lazy, fear of being perceived as mentally ill, distrust of helping professionals, and pride (1). That said, keeping the operation owners and workers healthy of mind as well as body is just as important as keeping your pasture or herd healthy. And when something needs fixing, well - you fix it.
What are some of the signs that let you know there might be a mental health crisis brewing? According to an article (2) from the American Farm Bureau Federation, the following signs are good indicators:
Decline in care of crops, animals and farm
Deterioration of personal appearance
Increasing life insurance
Withdrawing from social events, family and friends
Change in mood and or routine
Increase in farm accidents
Family shows signs of stress
Increase in physical complaints, difficulty sleeping
Increase in drug or alcohol use
Giving away prized possessions, calling or saying goodbye
Feeling trapped (no way out)
Making statements such as “I have nothing to live for” and “My family would be better off without me; I don’t want to be a burden.”
If you or a family member or a friend you care about is showing some of these signs, what do you do? There is more than one way to approach it, thankfully. Take a deep breath and have the conversation with a trusted family member, friend, pastor, or family doctor. Ask around - Let’s say somebody has a situation in which he [fill in the blank] . . . . Who do you know who is good at helping folks solve a problem like that? There are a number of counseling organizations and solo practitioners with solid experience who can be helpful, as well as pastoral counseling and physicians. But don’t just take everyone’s word for it - make sure your gut feeling is good about whoever you decide to talk with. From the article referenced earlier, here are two very good pieces of advice:
Call the helping professional, introduce yourself, and don’t be afraid to admit skepticism about whether counseling will do any good. Describe the situation and ask, “How much experience have you had with helping ranchers with this kind of situation? What do you advise in such a situation? What do you charge? How do I know you’ll keep what I say confidential?” Ask any other questions that you have.
React to your gut feeling as you interview each professional. Is this a counselor that can be trusted? If not, call and interview someone else. It’s better to drive 60 miles to talk with a trusted person than to drive 5 miles and hate the entire experience (Fetsch 2002).
Increasingly though, counselors and physicians are able to practice using video conference technology, or “tele-health.” At the same time, farmers and ranchers are becoming a lot more tech savvy as well. Need to learn GPS and/or computer systems for irrigation, harvesting, weed and pest control or feed schedules? You bet. And, it’s ok to use the computer to access mental healthcare as well, without having to take hours out of your day to drive into town to keep all your appointments.
Wyoming is fortunate to have a number of resources available. One such resource is the Wyoming Association of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Centers, or the Wyoming Department of Health, Behavioral Health Division. Each of these can help begin to locate an agency with local expertise. On top of that, if someone is in a crisis involving suicidal thoughts, Wyoming now has its own suicide hotline call center at 800-273-8255, or the new national “988” number for suicide prevention and mental health crises.
The last thing to say here is that when you know something’s off kilter, don’t sweep it under the rug or distract yourself with busywork and hope it goes away. That doesn’t work for real life, and it won’t work for mental health and addiction issues.
This article was originally written in June 2022 and revised in May 2023.