Farmers and ranchers are experiencing more mental health issues during the pandemic Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO)– Two out of three farmers or farmworkers (66%), say the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their mental health, according to a poll done by the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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The same poll showed that more than half of farmers/farmworkers (58%) say they are personally experiencing more mental health challenges than they were a year ago.

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Karl Oehlke is a Physician Assistant at Avera University Psychiatry and a farmer himself, who helped create Avera’s Farm and Rural Stress hotline. This hotline is resource for farmers, ranchers and people who live in rural communities, that is staffed by trained assessment counselors who can put the callers in touch with local mental health resources. The call is free and confidential.

Although there have been a number of good things happening for the agricultural industry this year, there are a number of things still on the horizon that are concerning, the biggest one in this area probably being drought, Oehlke said.

There is definitely more optimism this year than there was last year, Oehlke said.

“I am still going to phrase it as cautiously optimistic,” Oehlke said.

“Farmers have been stuck in, ag producers in general, three, four, five years of very tough times,” Oehlke said. “We’ve had reports in different entities of two to five times the national average of suicide in ag producers. That’s a line that I want to try to flatten.”

Last spring, due to the pandemic, the biggest concerns for producers were the erosion of prices, supply change issue and the additional isolation that everyone experienced.

Oehlke wants producers to know that they are not alone. Listen to the people that are on the outside looking in, such as spouses, children, friends and family because they see the changes often before the individual does, he said.

“You feel isolated, you feel alone, you feel like no one is going to understand if you would let your guard down and that is the hardest part probably that we talked about is starting that conversation,” Oehlke said. “Words like embarrassment and weakness and vulnerability all come in to play, when in essence, it should be just as easy to talk about mental health as it should be to talk about hypertension or diabetes. But, that stigma weighs heavy, especially still in the agricultural realm.”

The warning signs that Oehlke points to most include if the individual verbalizes that they want to harm themselves, if they are completely isolating themselves, not leaving their room, not spending time with family, not having the motivation or energy or will to get their chores done, neglecting things on the farm, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, losing interest in activities they once loved, constant worry and anxiety.

“The number one time they have to seek help is is they having thoughts of harming themselves or others,” Oehlke said. “That is a medical emergency in my opinion, a psychiatric emergency. After that, when we start to see that fall off of functionality. If that person can’t function like they need to, whether it’s taking care of their cows, their hogs, different stuff like that, we can help with that.”

The hotline has staff available 24/7 to answer calls, assess the situation and help people get the care they need. Oehlke has taken calls while on the tractor and in the field, he wants to producers to know that the hotline is available for them anytime from anywhere.

Jim Woster, ambassador for Avera and advocate for agriculture, has been actively involved with the hotline for years.

Farm families are not much different than your average families, Woster said. They have the same living costs, only on top of that they have three times as much cost to run an operation.

Woster says the worst time for anyone going through something is 2 o’clock in the morning. The hotline is a great place for those people to turn to no matter the time, to talk to someone who knows what they are doing.

The stigma around mental health in the farming community is better than it used to be, Woster said.

“It’s just one of the things you just didn’t talk about,” Woster said. “I have never understood it because one of the things that they will stress a professional is depression is an illness, it can happen to anybody.”

Woster said he thinks this stigma is there because farm people are tougher, they go out and face things that affect their livelihood and they do it without complaining.

And 87% of farmers/farmworkers say it is important to reduce stigma about mental health in
the agriculture community, including 59% who say it is very important.

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Woster has experienced anxiety himself.

The pandemic and extra isolation has undoubtedly affected farmers mental health, Woster said. He said that farmers usually find a reason to go into the elevator or into town, not only for work, but for a reason to socialize with others over coffee, and the pandemic has affected that. He also said that not having sports games and having churches closed has also taken away some of the interactions that farmers have and the sense of community.

Since the pandemic, farmers have been experiencing more isolation than normal. The percentage of farmers/farmworkers who think social isolation impacts farmers’ mental health increased 22% since April 2019, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.

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“To me, it was kind of the last nail that got driven in after the last four or five years,” Woster said. “Thankfully, this last summer we had good weather and good crops and good prices, but we have a lot of catching up to do. COVID definitely, definitely had an impact.”

Woster said sometimes, producers are not sure what the remedy for their mental health issues will be and how they are going to run their operation while getting mental health help. He said he still thinks there is also a part of the farming community that would rather not talk about something unless they have to.

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