Survey results have shown Montana State University researchers that farmers and ranchers throughout Montana and the West experience, on average, a medium level of stress, which could impact their sleep, physical health, mental health, or relationships, according to Michelle Grocke, health, and wellness specialist with MSU Extension and assistant professor in the MSU Department of Health and Human Development.
A range of issues can cause agricultural stress, she said, including commodity prices, weather, crop yield, debt, passing a farm or ranch to the next generation, family issues, injuries, and illness. She added that it could lead to mental illness, increased risk of suicide, and other health issues.
Grocke and her collaborators have launched several projects to help combat this stress. These efforts include a website that provides resources, a program that offers mini-grants for people across the Western U.S. who want to improve the mental wellness of those in their agricultural communities, and a project that provides free telehealth counseling services to any Montanan working in agriculture.
“MSU Extension is trying to reach people where they’re at and make information accessible to them,” Grocke said. “If we want to help Montanans — especially if they’re not going to be the ones knocking on our door asking (for help) — it seems like a really good place to focus our energy and time.”
Montana Farm/Ranch Stress Prevention Advisory Council
In 2019, a group of individuals and organizations from across Montana, led by MSU Extension and first funded by the Montana Healthcare Foundation, collaborated to provide resources and solutions for farmers and ranchers under stress.
The team, known as the Montana Farm/Ranch Stress Prevention Advisory Council, created a website that hosts resources for farmers, ranchers, and community members to better understand the causes of stress and how to manage it. The website is called the Montana Farm and Ranch Stress Resource Clearinghouse, and it includes stress management information and links to telehealth counseling services across Montana. Since its launch in the summer of 2020, more than 14,000 people have visited it, Grocke said.
“We’re trying to add a lot of videos and podcasts and be more creative in how we’re getting content out to Montanans,” Grocke said.
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Mental health mini-grants
In addition, a USDA-backed Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Project, or WRASAP, has funded research and provided mini-grants for people across the West who want to improve mental wellness in agricultural communities.
The $7.1 million WRASAP grant, of which Grocke is one of the leaders, is a collaboration among individuals and organizations from 13 Western states and four territories. The goals of the grant include conducting research to learn more about causes of stress and desired assistance, creating and providing stress management outreach and education to farmers and ranchers based on those research findings, creating a collaborative network of individuals working toward a shared goal, and providing direct services to farmers and ranchers, including a hotline where individuals can call and talk about their issues and get connected to counseling as appropriate.
A portion of the grant funded research reports on each state and territory, as well as one region-wide written report are available here.
“There is a still a lot of work to be done, but this work is helping highlight the issue of stress,” Grocke said.
Now, the WRASAP group is using the research to create outreach and educational programs, including online, self-paced classes, webinars and podcasts, as well as opportunities for training, mental health first aid and suicide prevention training known as QPR.
“There are also hundreds of thousands of dollars available in mini-grants for individuals wanting to improve the mental wellness of their community, either though professional development for themselves or if they would like to start their own outreach project,” Grocke said.
Telehealth counseling catered to agriculture
Finally, a new program is providing free telehealth counseling services to any Montanan working in agriculture. The program is part of a collaboration between the Montana State Department of Agriculture, MSU Extension and Northern Ag Broadcasting, along with Frontier Psychiatry. The program is called Beyond the Weather, and it is funded by a portion of a roughly $500,000 grant from the USDA’s Farm Stress Assistance Network that was awarded to the State Department of Agriculture. The grant provides six sessions of free counseling to each person.
Grocke said the program received about 200 calls in its first three months, and she noted that the counselors providing the telehealth counseling services are well-versed in what it’s like to work in agriculture.
“The nice thing is that they’re tailoring the therapy,” Grocke said. “They wouldn’t suggest things like people taking a vacation during calving season. They’re not talking about work-life balance. That’s why a lot of folks who work in agriculture are reluctant to go to counseling — the counselor needs to have that sort of innate understanding.”
Montanans who are working in agriculture who would like to participate in telehealth counseling may find more information here.
Grocke said that regardless of where a person lives in Montana, agriculture is the state’s backbone. “It’s part of our economy, livelihood, families and culture,” she said. “And it can be really stressful; There are so many stressors beyond people’s control.”