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Published October 29, 2012, 10:24 AM

The way to wellness

Harvest is a stressful time for most farm people. This year has brought many producers more than usual uncertainty because of the drought.

By: Mike Rosmann, Agweek

“My husband has been struggling with depression for years. It seems like he gets worse around harvest each year. His primary care physician sent him to a psychiatrist, but the two did not connect at all, nor did he connect with the psychologist in the office. He needs to see a counselor who understands farm life and can help him through what is bothering him.”

These comments were shared by a farm wife in an email to me.

Harvest is a stressful time for most farm people. This year has brought many producers more than usual uncertainty because of the drought. Farm people may need more medical care this harvest, not only because of stress, but also because of exposures to more dust and toxic molds than usual.

Farmers also may need behavioral health assistance in greater numbers than usual, as indicated by recent increases in the numbers of people contacting farm crisis hotlines, helplines and websites in the states where these resources exist.

During a recent telephone conference involving people who manage farmer-friendly telephone and Web-based referral services, all the administrators on the call indicated an upturn in the number of callers during this summer and early fall. In particular, calls from livestock and dairy producers were more frequent.

Unfortunately, few farm crisis hotlines, helplines and websites exist in agricultural states and regions. Currently, only eight states offer farmer-friendly telephone crisis counseling and referral services. They are:

•North Dakota 2-1-1 Helpline: 800-472-2911.

•South Dakota Rural Helpline: 800-664-1349.

•Minnesota Crisis Connection: 866-379-6363.

•Iowa Concern Hotline: 800-447-1985.

•Nebraska Rural Response Hotline: 800-464-0258.

•New York FarmNet (serves New York and upper New England): 800-547-3276.

•Vermont Farm First: 877-493-6216.

•Wisconsin Farm Center Hotline: 800-942-2474.

The term farm crisis hotline implies the availability of culturally appropriate telephone counseling at all times to callers who are engaged in agricultural occupations. The American Association of Suicidology accredits hotlines only if they are available 24/7. Follow-up, such as referral for counseling or immediate intervention in case of an imminent suicide, is part of the service. Not all the hotlines are accredited by the ASA.

The other listed services are helplines, which means they offer culturally appropriate advice about a variety of agricultural issues and referral for additional services but at specific hours set by the helpline and not necessarily available at all times. Helplines may be accredited by the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems.

The hotlines and helplines also can be accessed by email through their websites. The resources help callers deal with a range of problems, including all types of behavioral health issues, farming questions and referrals. They are best able to serve only the residents of their respective states.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is available to anyone at any time, but the telephone responders are not necessarily familiar with agricultural issues.

Farm and ranch people and farm workers willingly seek out farm crisis hotlines, helplines and websites. Some 22,000 callers yearly contacted the seven-state consortium of farm crisis services that was managed by AgriWellness Inc., a nonprofit program that I directed from 2001 to 2011.

Extensive evaluation of the AgriWellness program indicated callers appreciated that services were confidential, free and the telephone responders were familiar with agricultural issues. Follow-up counseling was provided by licensed professionals who had at least some exposure to training in agricultural behavioral health. In other words, the services were culturally appropriate.

The program saved many lives. During a one-year period, 56 callers had just attempted suicide; another 77 persons reported a suicide plan and 685 persons reported suicidal ideation. One farmer commented, “I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t made that call and got counseling.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services termed these services a “best practice model” that was included in its strategic plan, Rural Healthy People 2010: A Companion Document to Healthy People 2010. The AgriWellness portfolio of services is included in the 2011 DHHS publication, Rural Behavioral Health Programs and Promising Practices.

Few federal funds are available to operate farm crisis services. It was requested that a national Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network be included in the current farm bill. Congress is mostly deadlocked and unable to provide the behavioral health supports for farm people at a time when they are needed. State appropriations, private foundations and grassroots projects maintain the insufficient services that are available.

Professional counselors who understand agriculture and the problems specific to farm and ranch life are too few and far between. Farm people needing behavioral healthcare because of farming-related problems should ask if the prospective counselor is familiar with the unique issues involved in farming and keep asking around until the right match is found.

Editor’s Note: Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa psychologist and farmer. Contact him through the website: