Farmers Don’t Have to Suffer or Lose Sleep – Ask Professionals for Help

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By Lura Roti for S.D. Farmers Union

If a friend or loved one has diabetes or high blood pressure and their current diet or medications aren’t working, you wouldn’t tell them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get over it.” More than likely, you’d suggest they meet with their doctor.

The same thoughtfulness should apply when a neighbor or family member is struggling with anxiety or depression, explained Karl Oehlke, a Physician Assistant with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates.

“You can’t just grit your teeth and bear it. If you have pneumonia, I will prescribe an antibiotic for you. If you have sleep disturbance, I will give you something for sleep. Farming is never without stress. Right now, farmers are faced with a lot of stressors out of their control, which may be causing bonafide anxiety or depression. A medical professional can provide medication or counseling options to help with that too,” Oehlke said.

Oehlke speaks from experience. He is a third-generation Hartford farmer. “I farm myself, so I know that typical stresses are heightened right now, with concerns over significant fall off in profitability caused by issues with China, flooding and drought. And, the loss of income is pervasive right now. It’s not just the row crop guy or the dairy guy, it’s everyone in agriculture.”

In fact, Oehlke is concerned enough over farmers and ranchers’ mental health due to magnified stressors, that he suggested Avera launch the Farmer’s Stress Hotline.

Completely confidential and free, farmers, ranchers, their family and friends can call in 24/7 to visit with trained specialists to better understand where they can go for help. The Farmer’s Stress Hotline number is: 800-691-4336.

“There is a level of trepidation about going to the doctor for anxiety or depression. And, if you live in a small community, maybe you go hunting or to church with your primary care doctor and you’d rather keep things confidential. Call the hotline and we can refer you to someone outside your community,” Oehlke explains.

A professional, Oehlke explained, can provide farmers or ranchers with the medicine and other resources they need to get a good night’s sleep or more healthfully deal with depression and anxiety.

“When I visit with farmers who call in, I hear the words, “fear” and “anxiety,” quite a bit,’” Oehlke said. “When you’re not making money, you start to lose sleep because you’re worried about getting the kids through school or, as a third, fourth or fifth generation farmer, you don’t want to be the guy who loses the farm.”

And, unfortunately, lack of profits is currently an issue for many South Dakota farmers and ranchers, explained Nate Franzen, President of Ag Banking Division of First Dakota National Bank. “If you look across the agriculture landscape, it’s been really tight, with low commodity prices, a lot of volatility in the markets and livestock. It’s a tough environment to make money,” Franzen said.

Two years ago, 52 percent of First Dakota National Bank’s agriculture customers made a profit. Whereas, four years ago 60 percent of agriculture customers made a profit. “Tough economic times in agriculture are tough on everyone. It not only wears on farmers and ranchers, it wears on lenders, and others who serve them,” Franzen said. “The ag industry is a close group of folks, with lots of great leaders. We will be fine as long as we lean on each other, and we are there for each other.”

Signs you or a loved one needs mental health support

So, how do you know if someone you know, or love is battling anxiety or depression? Andrea Bjornestad, Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Mental Health Specialist shares some symptoms to watch for among family and friends:

  • Depression, hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from people or activities they ordinarily enjoy
  • Negative thoughts, including frequent talk about disappearing or death
  • Strong feelings of guilt or low self-esteem
  • Decline in hygiene or appearance
  • Alcohol or substance misuse
  • Stockpiling medication
  • Easy access to firearms

And, Bjornestad said if you see the above symptoms or assume someone is struggling, don’t hesitate to get involved. “If you see someone struggling, socially withdrawing, behavioral changes, don’t hesitate to ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves,” Bjornestad said. “Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. You asking will not impact a person’s response or thoughts.”

Approaching a friend or family member to discuss their mental health is not easy, Bjornestad offers some advice for this as well. She suggests talking to the person alone and in a private location.

“It is important to describe any changes you’ve observed in the person and to let them know that you care about them,” Bjornestad says. “After describing changes, you may need to ask tough questions directly including, “Have you had any recent thoughts of death and dying?” or, “Are you experiencing thoughts of suicide?’” 

If the answer is yes, the following resources are important:

  • Help the person get immediate mental health assistance.  Offer options such as the Helpline (dial 211) or Farmers Stress Hotline numbers; call a family member to come help and potentially take the person to the hospital; call a local mental health crisis team; call for emergency medical services. Do not leave the person alone.

“Remember, there are so many things right now that farmers and ranchers cannot control. We can’t control the prices. We can’t control the weather. But you can control whether or not you reach out for help to treat anxiety or depression symptoms,” Oehlke said. “By asking for help, farmers and ranchers are not only helping themselves, but they can help those around them. As farmers, we may not realize how many people we touch. Not only the many people we help feed, but our friends and family members are connected to our actions as well.”

For more information, call the Avera Farmer’s Stress Hotline at 800-691-4336 or Avera.org/FarmerStress, or contact Bjornestad at 605-688-5125 or andrea.bjornestad@sdstate.edu.


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