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C magazine

Cooperatives work to increase rural mental health awareness

Cooperatives partner with community organizations to increase mental health awareness and prevent suicides.
Sep 9, 2021

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From confined spaces to equipment malfunctions, there is no question farming is a dangerous occupation. But an emerging threat is putting farmers at risk: dying by suicide.

Among all occupations, farmers are the most likely to die by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The suicide rate among farmers, ranchers and ag managers is 3.5 times higher than the national rate, according to a University of Iowa study.  

Cooperatives are taking note. “Our cooperative walks hand-in-hand with our farmers and our patrons,” says Patrick King, regional human resources director at Agtegra Cooperative, which has more than 60 locations in South Dakota and North Dakota. Agtegra, in partnership with CHS through a Seeds for Stewardship grant, provided funding to start the Farm and Rural Stress Hotline, a free, confidential mental health hotline through Avera Health. 

People like King, as well as other cooperative employees, are in a good place to recognize when farmers may need help. “Our employees run their own farm operations; they’re coaches; they’re on school boards. We are embedded in these communities and we know how stressful farm life can be. It would be a disservice not to help where we can.”  

This help is creating new resources and opportunities to open the conversation around mental health in agriculture and reduce stigma associated with mental health problems.  

Cooperatives become a trusted partner

“Cooperatives offer a trusted voice,” says Shauna Reitmeier, CEO, Alluma, formerly Northwestern Mental Health Center, home of the HOPE Coalition, which provides mental health services to eight counties in northwestern Minnesota. The organization received a grant from CHS, which was then matched through the CHS Seeds for Stewardship program and part of a $100,000 commitment from CHS for mental health outreach. “As cooperatives partner with organizations focused on mental health, they can help us expand our reach and provide resources to their members.” 

Cooperatives also provide a natural connection directly to members to open the conversation. “By including information in mailings or handing out information at the scale, farmers receive information directly without having to ask for it,” says Amy Blackstone, regional philanthropy director, Avera Health.  

Blackstone also sees opportunities to help rural families by partnering with cooperatives. “If Avera contacts people with resources, it is seen as coming from a medical source. If a cooperative hands out a flyer that talks about the signs of depression, it gets more notice,” she says. “It’s like a friend saying, ‘We’re noticing you’re acting differently,’ and letting them recognize that behavior in themselves or someone else.”  

Cooperatives offer multiple opportunities for connections, says Amy Rademaker, coordinator for the Carle Center for Rural Health and Farm Safety in Urbana, Ill. “The many trips farmers make to the elevator are a great opportunity for us,” says Rademaker, who worked with Premier Cooperative in east-central Illinois to fund mental health outreach. 

“Cooperatives support outreach like Progressive Ag Safety Days, and we see that focus on safety as directly aligned with mental health support.”  

Reducing mental health stigma

From training sessions to social media, outreach for farmers is often focused on one thing: reducing stigma around mental health and suicide. 

“Mental health is the same as any other kind of wellness and we should be talking about it,” says Rademaker. “If a farmer breaks a leg, people will rally around that person. But if a farmer is struggling mentally, we aren’t as quick to help or may not even know help is needed. That needs to change.”  

As suicide becomes more prevalent in rural communities, more conversations are happening, but stigma can hold people back. “Mental health has not been talked about. We felt it was important for our cooperative to bring awareness and normalize the conversation,” says Jessica Eads, grain accounting specialist at Premier Cooperative. “Our farmers are our family and so many people suffer and don’t know where to go for help. By partnering with Carle, we can create avenues for farmers to have conversations and encourage them to seek help.”  

Conversation is key, says Reitmeier. “The biggest step in keeping someone safe and alive is asking a question. We need people to step into that fear. You’d rather ask how someone is doing than not ask and later find out that person died by suicide.”  

Focusing on farmer and rural safety

Safety messages often focus on physical injury, but being in a hard space mentally can be just as unsafe, says Rademaker. “Mental health problems can limit your ability to participate and be in the right mindset to do your job safely. You might not be focused or you might be having trouble sleeping. These can lead to higher likelihood of having an accident,” she says.  

Arming employees who interact with farmers can be a key touchpoint in starting the conversation. CHS has partnered with LivingWorks, the world leader in suicide prevention training solutions, to train employees to recognize signs of suicide risk.

“It’s tough to know what to say or do or how to approach somebody,” says Todd Dysle, CHS crop nutrients product manager and a CHS employee who has taken the training. “You ask yourself, ‘Should I get involved?’ But if we don’t get involved and something happens, we will have regret.  

“Suicide is not an easy topic,” he says. “The training focuses on helping people know you care by getting their permission to get them help. We can identify situations that might be leading someone to a dark place and get that person the assistance they need,” he says.  

“Suicide and mental health training is an insurance policy for those around you and yourself,” Dysle adds. “We can’t be sure when any of us will be faced with this situation, but training gives you courage to enter the space.”

Check out the full Summer 2021 issue of C magazine with this article and more

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