IIf you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call the new Behavior Health/Suicide Hotline at 988.
The after-hours emergency phone number for the High Plains Center for Mental Health is 1-800-432-0333.
Written by Christina Jani
Suicide rates among farmers in Kansas are up to seven times the state rates.
Committee members said Thursday that high tension among farmers as well as individuals’ reluctance to seek professional help has led to a mental health crisis.
Representatives of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture were in Hays Thursday to talk to local farmers and hear the hearing brought together by the High Plains Center for Mental Health.
Among those in attendance were Joseph Palm, Regional Director for International and External Affairs at HHS; Kimberly Nelson, Regional Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration; Nancy Rios, regional director of the Department of Health Resources and Services; Nicholas Claassen, International and Foreign Government Affairs at HHS; and Kristi Davis, USDA Director of Rural Development in Kansas.
Suicide by numbers in Kansas
The suicide rate in Kansas is higher than the national average. The percentage increased 65 percent between 2001 and 2020, said Dania Zolk, director of the Injury and Violence Prevention Division at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 34 years. Suicide in 2020 cost the state $5.7 billion in medical expenses and lost business.
The rates are highest among white males. Suicide rates in rural and border counties were 58 percent higher than the state rate.
Recovery after the fire of 4 provinces
Duane Keeler grew up on a farm in Trejo County. He and his wife lost their home and all of his possessions in the December Four County fire.
Nine hundred acres of farmland and 50,000 bushels of corn were also burned during the couple’s visit to Kansas City.
The couple built the house 40 years ago with the help of their children.
“We got a call from our daughter, and she said you went home,” said Keeler, crackling.
On the way home, I told my wife, ‘Look in the back seat of the pickup. ‘ She said there was nothing in there but two bags. And I said, ‘Well, that’s all we have.’
He said it’s therapy to talk about the loss and each time he tells the story, it gets easier.
“Out of tragedy, I think opportunities come,” he said. “I think our family is stronger. I think our son and daughter value us very much, and we value what we have.
“I tell people, on the happy side, how many 74-year-olds can build a whole new house and put all their new bullshit into it,” he said, smiling, and the insurance company would pay for it. He. She.”
Fire damage continued. At first, the winds blew a lot of the topsoil off the barren land. The ash from the fire damaged the fertility of the soil. Keeler planted and lost two rounds of crops on the scorched earth. A third cultivation of milo is finally growing.
Cultivation has always been stressful, Keeler said.
“How many of you are going to check out the markets in the afternoon and have lost $200,000, but still eat dinner that night? Still going forward,” he said. “Or you go to buy compost which is four times more than it was the year before, but you still write the check.”
Isolation spreads to farm families
Brenda Seaman is a licensed Clinical Social Worker at High Plains Mental Center but also comes from a multigenerational farm family.
“That said, we deal with things that are not in our control – commodity prices, input prices, weather, government policies that change. We are used to that,” she said.
“What I’ve seen in recent years is a dwindling of the resources that help us to survive. What I mean by that are our communities, our interconnectedness and our increasing isolation.”
Many farmers work additional jobs off the farm and the rural population is shrinking as farms consolidate.
“There is no time to meet in those informal places we used to do, drink a cup of coffee in the local elevator or co-op and talk about mutual stresses and mutual joys,” she said.
She added, “Isolation in my view with a difficult financial time can create desperation and a loss of common purpose. When you’re doing a really tough job, that’s a big deal.”
The farms were run by multiple generations of the family – grandparents, uncles, parents and children.
“The burden of this can now fall on the farmer alone, because sometimes it’s no longer financially viable to deliver that farm, so the kids work off the farm,” Seaman said.
Farm life heartbreak
Jesse Werrell, who lives on a farm in Phillips County, said separating work from home life is impossible on a farm.
Holding back tears, Waryl spoke of the grief caused by the loss of a cow and calf during childbirth.
“Imagine moments like that piling up day by day,” she said. “Tomorrow there may be a bolt of lightning that breaks on the beak and prevents him from finishing before dinner and they lose time with their family. Then comes the guilt.”
Werrell, a member of the Phillips County Hospital Board, said waiting times to get mental health care are a barrier for many rural Americans. These waiting times can range from two weeks to eight months.
“How does a person who is struggling expect to wait this long for help and how does it feel if they are put to the back?” she said.
The need for telehealth and broadband expansion
She said farmers, who are subject to the needs of their livestock or the whims of the weather, cannot stick to pre-set dates.
Werrell said this, along with a desire for privacy, makes telehealth a more viable option for many farmers.
Committee members said that many rural families still lacked high-speed internet. If you are next to a fiber optic line and can access the service with this provider, access is good.
However, panel members provided examples of families who were unable to access the Internet when fiber-optic cable was close to the road from their homes. One company wanted to extend the fiber across the farmer’s land but refused to give him internet access because the farmer was not in their coverage area.
Committee members said broadband expansion is necessary to extend telehealth services to rural communities, but business models and regulations impede access.
Dr. Kristen Fisher, medical director of First Care Clinic in Hays, has promoted the use of the integrated health approach used at First Care. All First Care patients are screened for both physical and mental health needs when they visit for appointments.
“People don’t like coming back and talking about being depressed,” she said. “I have suicidal thoughts.” “But if that’s just part of the visit – it’s included in your visit – they’ll stay for it. We can do these suicidal interventions.”
The clinic hired a telehealth psychiatric nurse to administer the medication.
“If there is a gap in the teaching in medical school and the education of nurse practitioners, it is around behavioral health and the management of behavioral health medications. The teaching is very poor, unfortunately,” she said.
“The Weight of Legends”
Lauren Mack is a veterinarian at Animal Hospital, which has locations in Plainville and Philipsburg. She works daily with farmers and ranchers.
She talked about the “weight of legends” in farm families.
“When you stand by the chute. The legend is the grandfather… Sometimes the great-grandfather or the neighbor was on the road. Not only do you have an obligation to your family to continue farming, but to the whole area and your children. The list becomes extensive.”
This weight is coupled with a lack of separation planning and substance abuse, she said. She said she sees many psychological problems and affected marriages.
Mac later added that the ranchers she works with tend to be very isolated, which she said she believed also contributed to mental health issues.
“If you’ve spent an entire day working on your own, you have a lot of time to convince yourself of all the things you’ve done wrong and all the things that go wrong, and there’s plenty of time to get somewhere,” she said.
She said the ranchers broke down in tears with her, but she said it took asking questions and connecting as a friend to get someone to talk about their struggle.
Meet needs and find solutions
Alicia Burr, an agent for Cottonwood County Extension, said her agency is trying to get as many people as possible from question, follow and referral training, also known as QPR. This hour-long training helps ordinary people learn techniques for dealing with mental health emergencies.
“Most farmers don’t want to admit they are struggling, but they will move mountains to save their friends,” she said.
Andrew Brown, commissioner of behavioral health services for the Kansas Department of Aging and Disability Services, said the governor has earmarked $1.5 million in its budget this year to prevent suicide.
On July 16, the new 988 mental health/suicide hotline was launched. It will work much like 911. The majority of calls to the line will be answered by workers in Kansas.
Brown said Kansas is also working to open crisis centers, as well as mobile crisis units.
KDHE is applying for a grant from the Centers for Disease Control for mental health programs among youth in agriculture in Kansas frontier communities, Zolck said with KDHE.
Cover photo by Christina Jani/Hayes Post