Experts see uptick in farmers seeking mental health help

Weather, economy continue take toll on the health of farmers and ranchers

(Paula Pandey Chhetri / Forum News Service)

OACOMA, S.D. — Between the effects of record-breaking rainfall, claiming high levels of prevent plant and continued uncertainty over commodity prices, many of South Dakota’s farmers have become even more stressed than usual over the past year.

However, experts who participated in the South Dakota Farm and Ranch Stress Summit in Oacoma this week said producers’ willingness to talk openly about mental health and stressors is on the upswing, as well.

“As a general rule, we are seeing more people in general coming in due to feelings of stress, anxiety, just a lack of control in general. It’s just been a difficult year for a lot of people,” said Duane Kavanaugh, director of Lutheran Social Services’ Behavioral Health Services and leader of one of the breakout sessions at the summit. “Farming is a tough career choice in itself. It’s just a lot of hard work. I think most people go into it and do it because they love it. But it has been a tougher year because there’s been so many factors.”

Andrea Bjornestad, a counselor and SDSU Extension’s mental health specialist, said she wanted to organize the summit to bring together farmers and health care specialists to discuss rural stress.

“Right now, we’re seeing an increase in depression symptoms, as well as suicide risk in producers,” Bjornestad said Thursday. “... I thought it was very important to educate counselors and social workers and psychologists and other health care professionals on what is actually happening with producers.”


Bjornestad said she’s seen many farmers open up about stress, but that there’s still a stigma around seeking professional help for mental health. For some, the idea of going to a counselor is daunting in part because of the price tag attached to it.

In an effort to provide producers with more resources for managing stress in a way that eliminates some of those factors that make people uncomfortable with physically going to an appointment with a counselor, Avera launched its Farm and Rural Stress Hotline in January. The hotline is headed by Karl Oehlke, a physician’s assistant at Avera Behavioral Health in Sioux Falls who also farms near Hartford.

“Granted, we prefer to see folks inpatient. I’d love to see that nonverbal interaction, nonverbal language type of thing, but it’s just not feasible for some of these guys,” Oehlke said.

So far, Oehlke said, the hotline has taken a few hundred calls, with an average of about two or three per day. The hotline, which is free, confidential and staffed at all times, has been contacted by people in 11 states as of this past week.

Some of the ebb and flow of hotline traffic has correlated with weather events, such as flooding in Nebraska or April’s blizzard.

“As far as the biggest thing we’re seeing just this past year, it’s an additive effect,” Oehlke said of farmers’ stressors. “We’re looking at three or four years of reduced incomes, low crop prices, low commodity prices across the board.”

Oehlke said being a farmer himself has made him more relatable to those who call the hotline or who have contacted him via text, email or in person.

“I try to be as malleable as I possibly can for folks. I’ve been in my truck talking to people; I’ve been in the tractor,” said Oehlke, who went on to say that one man called while Oehlke was in his tractor planting corn. “I was like, ‘You know, if you don’t mind me talking, you might hear some alarms and buzzers and stuff going on in the background.’ And actually, I think that opened up the line of communication more than anything.”


While part of the hotline’s goal is to give producers tools to manage their stress, another element involves matching them with people in their community who can help.

Oehlke said he was approached at this week’s summit by Janice Hanson, a farmer and art therapist near Winner who wanted to offer help of her own. Though Hanson was drawn to the summit through her work in therapy, she realized she had the means to potentially ease ranchers’ stress logistically.

Hanson, who has already allowed some cattle on her land to keep the cows from getting muddy on their owners’ land, told Oehlke she had some extra pasture and hay that she’d be willing to allow others to use.

Hanson said she’s considered offering similar assistance but wasn’t sure how to go about finding those who would need her resources the most.

“My heart goes out to those who need help,” Hanson said. “I’ve seen people raise money and stuff like that, but in this situation, I just think that there’s people that I don’t know of that are in situations, and if I could help in some way, I’m going to do that.”

After reaching out to Oehlke at the summit, she’s hoping Avera’s hotline can put ranchers in touch with her. She said she currently has space for 150 head of cattle, although she’d likely only be able to take them in through the fall.

“There’s so many things that are out of our control,” Oehlke said. “We can’t control weather; we obviously can’t control what’s going on in Washington, trying to get some of these tariffs figured out. But the one thing we can control is getting help for ourselves or our family members.”

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