The downturn in the ag economy has the Extension office in Clay Center, Kan., concerned about farmers and their mental health.

Extension director John Forshee said that while farmers in north central Kansas enjoyed very profitable years five years ago, what they’re making currently isn’t enough to meet living expenses and many farm families are having to make tough decisions such as selling land, and some cases, everything they have.

“I had a discussion with one young couple recently (who said) ‘OK, we’re going to have to sell land and we’re probably going to have to sell our house,’” Forshee said. “And you think about that when you have a 12-, 13-, or 14-year-old in the house, that ‘We’re going to move not because we’re choosing to be somewhere else, we’re having to sell our house,’ and how that might affect them.”

More alarming, in the 20 counties in the northwest corner of Kansas, there has been a 65 percent increase in suicide among farmers in the last several years.

“It is a serious issue,” Forshee said.

Tax laws force farmers to either invest in land or new equipment when they have a good year and doesn’t really allow them to save up for down years, because they’ll pay “a good chunk” of those profits to the government if they don’t, Forshee said.

The average farm family in north-central has living expenses of about $60,000 a year or $70,000 to $80,000 with income taxes on top of that. That’s high in part because most farm families have to buy their insurance as an individual policy, and that alone costs about $15,000 to $24,000. Average farm income for a typical producer in north central Kansas is between $15,000 and $30,000 in the years 2015 to 2017, according to Kansas Farm Management Association, an Extension program.

“That starts to paint a picture of why we have farm families under extreme duress around here at this time,” Forshee said.

How you can help

Forshee joked that “it does take a special kind of crazy to be a farmer,” as they frequently go through ups and downs and tend to “hang onto their farm at all costs” and often those farms have been in the family for generations.

Farmers believe in working hard, long and late, endure all kinds of hardships and take all kinds of risks, Forshee said.

They also tend to be self-reliant, tend to deal with adversity well (such as taking care of cattle when they’re calving in the worst weather), and tend not to recognize when they have a mental health problem or seek help when they do.

Forshee added that while farmers have a different reaction to stress, he encouraged people who know a farmer to recognize when that stress might be getting to them. Over-eating or not eating enough might a sign, as well signs of fatigue, poor-decision making skills, opioid addiction and other addiction behavior. Other signs can be things like not showing up to morning coffee when that farmer used to be always there, giving things away or withdrawing from outside contact.

One way to help reduce stress is change how you react to it, Forshee said. Using to the acronym “BRAIN,” he said to “Breath” deep, “Relax,” “Ask” yourself how you want to feel, then “Imagine” yourself feeling that way and then doing it “Now.” There are lots of breathing exercises and relaxation techniques that help you reduce stress, too.

Not doing anything about the stress puts your health at risk, and not just because it raises your blood pressures, but also because being under stress tends to make you prone to accidents and an increased need for hospitalization.

Forshee said one way the Extension Office is helping reduce stress for farmers is to address “food deserts” in small communities that don’t have access to a grocery store by putting up food boxes. This helps take one worry — ‘Do I have enough to feed my family?’ off the table, he said.

“If someone is in need they can pick up macaroni and cheese or something else like that someone has left (dropped off). Those who can help can do so that way,” Forshee said. “And it’s a fairly anonymous way to do that as well.”

K-State Extension also offers an ag remediation service to help farmers facing foreclosure to work with their banker to work out a solution other than losing their farm. A former banker, Forshee said often bankers are willing to work something out without remediation if farmers just communicate with them about the financial pressure they’re under.

Forshee said the Extension office will also conduct training in coming months with people who might have the first contact with a producer on how to help. That person who could help might be someone in their church, or even someone with very minor contact — such as a grocer or a bank teller. They also want to reach producers too, but that may be more difficult as people who might be experiencing a mental health crisis are generally reluctant to seek help.

“That’s a tougher marker because (if) I’m a farmer under stress, and I am the fourth generation on it and I’m at risk of losing it, where’s the last place I’m going to go to? A meeting where I talk about my mental health is the last meeting I’m going to go to.”

They also make sure they reach kids of farm families by talking to school counselors.

“We have a lot of farm kids who could be carrying a lot of baggage just because they don’t know what’s happening, even though they might have an inkling.” Forshee said.

Forshee also encouraged people to take a mental health first aid course, as there’s a lot of good information in those courses.

If someone tells you they’re thinking of suicide, Forshee advised calling 911 and not leaving that person alone until additional help arrives.

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