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Michael R. Rosmann, Ph.D., FarmersÕ Forum columnist

How to find an agricultural behavioral health counselor

Some agricultural producers will have a toilsome time reconciling their income and expense bottom-lines this year because market prices for several major farm commodities remain low. For many, 2017 grain yields and livestock sales also are subpar. Although the overall agricultural horizon looks brighter for the future than at this time last year, the best hopes of many farmers are to ride out the current difficult era.

U.S. Department of Agriculture farm programs and crop/livestock insurance will help agricultural producers in varying degrees, depending on the level of coverage they elected. Some hard-pressed farmers chose less costly options at sign-up time, but with lower guaranteed payments on claims. They gambled on higher crop yields and farm prices which may not materialize.

The most marginalized farmers are facing tough decisions. They will have to rely on other income sources for their household needs, and they may face recall of farm operating and long-term loans.

Financially stressed families are already reaching out for behavioral health assistance. Eight people involved in farming contacted me by email or telephone over the past three weeks about finding counselors who understand farming.

Their concerns included deteriorating family relationships, anxiety or depression of a family member and worries about what will happen when they aren't able to make required loan payments. All were seriously distressed.

Although I have written previously about how to find agricultural behavioral health providers, an update is necessary.

The first and most important decision for overwhelmed farmers and their families is to seek counseling. It's a difficult decision because it involves acknowledging that they need external advice rather than relying solely on themselves.

Self-reliance is a defining psychological trait of successful farmers, along with extraordinary tolerance for adversity. Recognizing that outside assistance with emotional, financial and legal issues is needed is a step in the right direction, and a major admission for people who maintain an agrarian livelihood.

What should farmers and their family members take into consideration when seeking an agricultural behavioral health counselor? Here are recommendations I have offered in the past, and with updated information:

• Foremost, the counselor should be familiar with agriculture; I learned from Dr. Lynda Haverstock, past lieutenant governor of Saskatchewan and a psychologist, that understanding the culture of farming goes a long way toward establishing credibility as a "helper" to farmers.

• To find a counselor who has an agricultural background and/or understands the culture partly through training and experience, farmers may approach farm crisis telephone helplines in five states that maintain lists of counselors who have track records of helping farm families: the Iowa Concern Hotline (1-800-447-1985), the Nebraska Rural Response Helpline (1-800-464-0258), New York FarmNet (1-800-547-3276), Vermont Farm First (1-877-493-6216), and the Wisconsin Farm Center (1-800-942-2474).

• Farmers in other states usually have to launch personal searches, because there is no national directory of agricultural behavioral health therapists. I encourage them to contact their physicians, local professional providers and community-operated services to ask who in their area best understands agriculture. I also encourage callers to contact their state associations of psychologists, mediators, counselors, social workers and other professions and to speak with the association director. This person may know association members in the state who work with farm people and farming issues.

• Interested people can find the websites and telephone numbers of state professional associations online. Sometimes the local county or regional Extension office director knows who can be a useful "helper."

• I also recommend that to maintain confidentiality, callers should only use their first names when visiting with agency representatives and professional association directors.

• If the first selection proves unsuitable, don't be afraid to try other choices; a "good fit" is more important than the academic degree of the counselor.

• The counselor should be willing to meet at times and places acceptable to the farm family, such as on a rainy day or weekend and at their home if appropriate (home visits by a counselor yield valuable information about the farming enterprise that save time during discussions).

• Farm family members may want to ask if they can pay for services at a reduced private rate rather than through insurance, because any time an insurance claim by a professional provider is processed, it goes through a national databank that keeps track of the diagnoses on the claim form. Some diagnoses can make subsequent health and life insurance more costly if a chronic illness is registered on the provider's claim for reimbursement. Bear in mind, the provider cannot alter a diagnosis made in good faith and would be committing fraud if the claim is entered incorrectly.

• Sometimes the best agricultural counselors are not licensed professionals; they may be pastors, farmer coaches or wise people who listen well and can give useful advice.

The negative stigma about seeking help with behavioral health problems is diminishing among people involved in agriculture. Obtaining necessary behavioral health assistance is a strength, not a weakness.

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