Mental health on minds at ag forum
By: Jeff Rice
March 1, 2019
The mental health of farmers and ranchers was on a lot of minds was on the minds of a lot of people at the Governor’s Forum on Colorado Agriculture last week.
One entire breakout session dealt with mental health in rural Colorado, and the subject came up at least twice in other sessions.
Former Commissioner of Agriculture Don Brown, Elizabeth Hickman, Executive Director of Centennial Mental Health Centers, and Kay Greene, Development Director for Mental Health Colorado participated in a breakout panel session on mental health in Colorado’s rural environment.
All three panel members agreed that isolation and a culture of independence often get in the way of addressing mental health issues.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has retracted its commonly-cited statistic that suicide among farmers and ranchers is higher than among combat veterans, any number of self-inflicted deaths is devastating to a community. Former Commissioner Brown said he became personally involved in the mental health issue when a neighbor and long-time friend began asking Brown to buy him out.
“I like my friends and neighbors and I worry about them,” Brown said. “My family came to Yuma County in 1908, and we’ve been here ever since. Watching my friends and neighbors leave in the 1980s was a terrible thing. And a suicide’s impact on a community is just devastating.”
While agriculture doesn’t regularly subject farmers and ranchers to the heart-pounding stresses of, say, police work and firefighting, Greene said there is an unwillingness in rural areas to seek care because people, particularly men, don’t want their neighbors to know they’re seeking help.
“There’s a stigma, and we need to work to get away from that,” Greene said.
Brown said that’s one of the down sides of the small, tight-knit nature of rural communities. “Everybody knows your pickup, and you don’t want them to see it parked in front of that place,” he said.
Hickman said context is important and that there’s a “gap in understanding” between those who deliver mental health care in rural communities and people at the state level.
“We need people on the other end of the phone who understands what goes on in rural communities,” she said. “We wanted to start a hotline people in rural areas could call. We found out the Colorado Crisis Center already exists, but there’s a gap in understanding between the caller and the person who’s supposed to be helping.”
Brown elaborated on that point: “What happens when someone calls in and says, ‘I can’t feed my cows?’ The 29-year-old on the other end hears that and thinks, ‘He can’t feed his (pets.)’ He doesn’t realize that farmer’s saying, ‘I can’t buy food for my family, I can’t buy fuel for my equipment, I can’t afford to send my kids to school.’ We need people who know, when you say you can’t feed your cows, you’re saying you’re done.”
Hickman said there is some reason to hope that the situation can get better.
“We’re starting to see these kinds of conversations happening,” she said. “Learn about (mental health) yourselves, talk about it with your family. Open the door and realize that you’re not alone.”
The Governor’s Conference on Colorado Agriculture was held Wednesday in at the Renaissance Stapleton Hotel in Denver.
Jeff Rice: 970-526-9283, firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally appeared in Journal Advocate.