Guest Columnist

Farmer stress affects the whole family

A program participant looks at a card for the Mobile Crisis Outreach services offered by CommUnity, formerly The Crisis Center, during Employers' Council of Iowa's Emergency Mental Health Intervention for Employers: Be a part of a
A program participant looks at a card for the Mobile Crisis Outreach services offered by CommUnity, formerly The Crisis Center, during Employers' Council of Iowa's Emergency Mental Health Intervention for Employers: Be a part of a "Chain of Survival" suicide prevention training session at Big Grove Brewery & Taproom, 1225 S. Gilbert St., in Iowa City, Iowa, on Tuesday, May 21, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In my work as a crisis counseling and suicide-prevention trainer, I know all too well that Iowa’s mental health resources are scarce. It’s not at all controversial to say that. Even in bigger cities and the most populated counties in Iowa, it’s difficult to get the help you need when you face a mental health crisis.

Imagine you’re living in a small town and you are experiencing a mental health crisis. Where do you go? Emergency rooms and other resources are overburdened, not to mention expensive.

We have to do better for rural Iowans, and quite frankly, we are at a critical juncture.

Iowa’s farming families have always experienced a level of stress with their profession. But with flooding, falling commodity prices, tariffs and a trade war, that stress is compounded in 2019. Many have compared the last few years to the farm crisis of the 1980s, in which suicide among agricultural workers reached a record high.

Through my work as communications manager at CommUnity, formerly The Crisis Center of Johnson County, I met Brenda Boese. Brenda was 15 when her family lost their farm during the 1980s farm crisis. After building a new livestock building, prices fell dramatically. A farmer from a neighboring town sold her father a herd of diseased hogs and the farm was quarantined by the state. Her father entered a five-year legal battle, and then faced foreclosure.

The foreclosure itself wasn’t a slow process, however — it happened unexpectedly one day when flatbed trucks and police officers appeared to seize the family’s animals and property. It was a traumatic experience for Brenda and her teenage brother and sister. It would have long-term traumatic effects for the whole family.

A year after the foreclosure, Brenda’s parents divorced. Family members became estranged. And in 2018, the unimaginable happened — Brenda’s sister died by suicide.

“More emphasis needs to be put on the entire family, not just the farmer going through it,” Brenda told me, calling for resources for every member of a farming family. “They have to reach out and get help. The long-term effects aren’t worth it.”

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Brenda is a licensed master social worker with a bachelor’s degree in animal science, and she pointed out that livestock raised in stressful environments will produce lower-quality meat and become ill more often. Stress and trauma have similar effects on the human brain and body.

So how can farming families reach out given the stigma surrounding mental health and the lack of resources in rural Iowa communities?

A recent study by the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health at the University of Iowa found that in times of stress, farmers reported talking to their faith leaders rather than a doctor or counselor. That led researchers to partner with CommUnity to provide suicide prevention training to pastors and other members of the faith community in rural Iowa. Information about suicide prevention training can be found at www.builtbycommunity.org/training.

Additionally, CommUnity works with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach to provide crisis services to those working in agriculture through Iowa Concern. In response to the 1980s farm crisis, ISU Extension created the Iowa Concern helpline, a 24/7 phone, chat, and text service where farmers can go for legal, financial, stress, and crisis/disaster support.

For family members of all ages, CommUnity provides free, emotional support via phone, chat, and text. Call or text 1-855-325-4296, or chat at www.IowaCrisisChat.org.

• Liz Orton is communications and development manager at CommUnity, formerly the Crisis Center of Johnson County.

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