Addressing Mental Health in Rural America
Confronting mental health challenges is difficult for anyone, especially farmers and ranchers known for their toughness. No matter what life throws at them, they can handle it. That reputation and the negative stigma around mental health in rural communities has left many to suffer in silence. With research showing rising rates of depression and suicide among agricultural producers and workers in recent years, groups across the country are taking action to let farmers and ranchers know it’s OK to ask for help.
“It's such a weight of responsibility,” says Courtney Kibblewhite of Northern Ag Network, a radio and television provider serving farmers and ranchers in Montana, Wyoming and the Western Dakotas. Growing up in a Montana ranching family herself, Kibblewhite understands the challenges farmers and ranchers face and how easily self-worth and occupation can become intertwined. “You think, ‘if I’m not profitable this year, and all of my identity is wrapped up in the ranch, does that mean that I'm a bad person, that I'm not worth anything, that I shouldn't be here?’”
For two years, Kibblewhite and the Northern Ag Network have partnered with the Montana Department of Agriculture on Beyond the Weather, an initiative to “break the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage Montana ag communities to seek assistance with stress management by moving beyond just talking about the weather.” Funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, Beyond the Weather provides access to counseling, including telehealth, outreach, reporting on mental health and additional resources for those in farming, ranching and other ag-related occupations.
“We called the project Beyond the Weather, keeping in mind that the first thing we talk about with everybody is the weather,” says Amelia Siroky of Northern Ag Network. “It's not very often that we get beyond the weather with our neighbors or our friends to ask them how they're doing, how they're really doing.”
This past November, the campaign was awarded the 2022 Plambeck Award at the National Association of Farm Broadcasting Annual Convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The award recognizes communication designed to inform, influence, motivate and entertain the agricultural community. According to Siroky, Beyond the Weather has connected almost 40 people in Montana with free counseling while normalizing the conversation about mental health. She hopes the program will serve as an example of how to help farmers and ranchers through times of crisis by providing an anonymous, simple way to access all of the information they need.
Like Montana, numerous states across the country have implemented programs focused on rural mental health, and it’s paying off. In research conducted in 2021, the American Farm Bureau Federation found 61 percent of farmers and farm workers reported experiencing more stress and mental health challenges than the previous year. Those feelings were most often attributed to financial issues, weather events and other factors out of their control. However, the same study showed an increase in awareness about mental health among rural adults and more acceptance for seeking help.
“We have to work past the mentality of pushing through and everything’s fine, because someday, it’s not going to be fine,” says Siroky. On that day, campaigns like Beyond the Weather will be there. For confidential help dealing with stress, depression or substance abuse, visit Beyond the Weather in Montana or reach out to your state's department of agriculture. You can listen to more about Beyond the Weather on Episode 23 of the FieldLink Podcast.
Photo: Courtney Kibblewhite (left) and Amelia Siroky (right) receiving the 2022 Plambeck Award at the National Association of Farm Broadcasting Annual Convention in November.