By Jeanne Janson, NFU Intern
National Farmers Union (NFU) represents a diverse group of 200,000 family farmers and ranchers and food advocates, united by the belief that strong farm families and rural communities are vital to the health, security and economic well-being of our nation. In our Member Spotlight series, we will be sharing stories about their connection to the land, to their communities, and to Farmers Union.
At the beginning of March, Brent Brewer made the trip to National Farmers Union’s (NFU) 118th Anniversary Convention a few days early. He wasn’t trying to squeeze in a few more ghost trips or historic architecture tours in Savannah. He was attending a farm stress and suicide prevention program that NFU, Farm Credit, and Michigan State University hosted in conjunction with the convention.
“If I could save one life,” Brent said, “I’ll feel like I’ve done my part.”
Over the course of the two-day session, he learned how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of stress and suicide and teach others to do the same. Sitting in that hotel conference room in early March, Brent could’ve never known how crucial this training would be in just two short months when he received a call from a farmer in distress.
“I landed on my feet and went into action.”
A Community in Crisis
Ask any farmer or rancher and most will tell you that stress is a part of the job. From weather to market prices, many factors are largely out of their control. This is always how farming has been, but in recent years, the sources of stress have been piling on. Between increasingly extreme weather, persistently low prices, trade disputes, and now a pandemic, times are tough for farmers – and it’s taking a toll on their mental wellbeing.
“When a dairy farmer sells out, first he’s let the cows down, so he has to let them go and they’re going to go to slaughter. Then the second thing is his wife probably worked on the farm and so did his kids and they’re out of a job and even the family dog is out of a job,” Brent noted. “Now, all of a sudden, the barn is locked up and it’s dark.”
In 2017, approximately 6.8 million people in nonmetropolitan counties experienced a mental health condition and 1.7 million had serious thoughts of suicide. To further complicate matters, farmers and rural Americans face numerous barriers to accessing mental health care. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that 61 percent of designated Mental Health Professional Shortage Areas were in nonmetropolitan areas. It would take another 4,000 and 6,000 mental health professionals to provide adequate care nationwide.
It would surely take years, if not decades, to train and hire that many people. But what if there’s another way to fill the gap? What if we could teach farmers, ranchers and community members to notice signs of stress and offer help before it’s too late?
Putting it into Practice
Brent, born and raised in Grant County, Oklahoma, is full of energy and drive to serve his community. His motto is simple: “You just have to be a person that says yes.” A resounding yes is the exact response he gave when asked to attend the farm stress training program. It’s also the answer he gave a few months after the training when asked if he could take a call from Oklahoma Farmers Union (OFU) farm stress hotline.
Brent picked up the phone and heard a distressed farmer weeping on the other line. The farmer told Brent he was standing in his family room with a loaded shotgun. “This guy is three and a half hours from where I live,” said Brent, “There’s no way I could’ve got there in time.”
But Brent had been trained for this exact scenario. He knew how to talk him off the ledge, gain his trust, and persuade him to go to a health center. “I’m not a professional psychologist, but, as you can tell, I can talk until I can get you some real help,” he said.
Everything went according to plan. The result? One farmer’s life was saved.
Imagine a tightly woven net stretching over all of rural America. When your baler breaks, or half of your fields are under water, or your brother who you’ve been running the farm with passes away unexpectedly, you need to know there’s somewhere to turn, whether it’s a neighbor who can come over, a counselor in town who takes your insurance, or a toll-free number where someone’s always waiting on the other line. This is the level of support that is necessary to build better, more resilient rural communities in America.
NFU seeks to grow and strengthen this network through its online farm stress training course, which was developed with the support of Farm Credit and Michigan State University, and its Farm Crisis Center. Brent’s testimony is evidence that these programs are working, but there’s still a long way to go.
This is an especially poignant topic today as many Americans face greater social isolation, heightened levels of stress, and loss of employer-provided health insurance. Though many providers have pivoted to telehealth services, for the 30 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband, this isn’t a realistic alternative. One emotional distress hotline had 11 times more calls this April than it did last April. As Congress considers additional pandemic assistance and stimulus legislation, it is vital that they prioritize mental health initiatives. In particular, NFU urges support for farm stress management training programs, the development of a media campaign to educate farmers and ranchers on mental health issues and resources, and the establishment of a federal task force to study the causes of farm stress and evaluate best practices for response.
In the meantime, Brent doesn’t plan to stop his mental health outreach. “If you’re headed down a rough road and there’s a dangerous curve down at the bottom, I’m going to try and help you navigate it.”
If you’re experiencing high levels of stress, you aren’t alone. Visit NFU’s Farm Crisis Center for hotlines, mediation resources, disaster assistance, and more.
Like what you’ve read? Join the conversation at National Farmers Union’s Facebook page.