Standing before a crowd of farmers and ranchers attending the South Dakota Farmers Union (SDFU) State Convention, Karl Oehlke made a simple request. “Stand up, find a partner, turn and look them in the eye.”
Once SDFU members responded, Oehlke, shared a shocking statistic. “There’s a good chance, one of you has a mental illness. Many don’t realize that across the United States, nearly 50 percent of people in their lifetime will have a diagnosis of a mental illness,” says Oehlke, a physician assistant with Avera Medical Group University Psychiatry Associates.
And today, due to chronic stressors facing farm country, Oehlke says many farmers are dealing with adjustment disorders. “This is a mental health diagnosis in response to an event or chain of events a person is currently experiencing.” Oehlke explains that adjustment disorders can last up to six months, but with proper medical treatment, may impact a client for a much shorter period of time. “This is a reason seeking help is important.”
When Oehlke talks about stress impacting farmers, he’s speaking from first-hand experience. Along with his career at Avera, Oehlke is a third-generation Hartford farmer.
How do you know if you or someone you love needs help? Oehlke shares a list of symptoms to review:
• Sleep—It is a misnomer that those who are depressed sleep. In fact, the majority of people experiencing an adjustment disorder pray for sleep. “They cannot turn off the gerbil wheel,” Oehlke says.
• Interest—Not participating in activities you used to, or not enjoying certain activities you used to enjoy. Maybe you used to attend every basketball game or go to the elevator for coffee and you aren’t doing those things anymore or they don’t bring you joy when you do make an effort.
• Guilt—Farmers or ranchers may experience fear that they will not be able to provide for their family. “In agriculture there is often an inverse proportion of responsibility and control. Basically, a huge amount of responsibility and very little control over aspects like weather, tariffs and renewable fuels. There are a lot of succession concerns. How did Grandpa make it through the Dirty Thirties or dad in the ’80s—how come 2019 is the time we lose the farm?”
• Energy—Not having the energy to do what you need to do.
• Concentration or focus—Distracted easily. Unable to focus or concentrate. Not able to make decisions. Making frequent mistakes.
• Lack of appetite—Losing weight or gaining weight due to unhealthy eating habits.
• Suicidal thinking—Thoughts or plans of hurting oneself.
What are my options?
Oehlke encourages SDFU members and anyone concerned about the mental health of themselves or someone they care about to reach out to a medical professional.
If a friend or loved one has diabetes or high blood pressure and their current diet or medications aren’t working, you wouldn’t tell them to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get over it.” More than likely, you’d suggest they meet with their doctor.
The same thoughtfulness should apply when a neighbor or family member is struggling with anxiety or depression, says Oehlke. “You can’t just grit your teeth and bear it. If you have pneumonia, I will prescribe an antibiotic for you. If you have sleep disturbance, I will give you something for sleep. Right now, farmers are faced with a lot of stressors out of their control, which may be causing bona fide anxiety or depression. A medical professional can provide medication or counseling options to help with that too.”
Because of the fact that everyone knows everyone in rural communities, reaching out to a local professional over mental health concerns may be awkward. Another easy option is the Farmers Stress Hotline, 800-691-4336. Confidential and free, the service is available 24/7 and will help farmers, ranchers or their supporters connect with mental health services. — Lura Roti, SDFU