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In the weeks after flooding drowned the livelihoods of families who've farmed along the
The devastating floods increased concerns about the mental health and well-being of farmers who already were struggling with yearslong economic uncertainty. Groups in flood-affected states such as
Farmers have weathered years of a slow decline, but advocates worry they could crumble under the sudden pressures created by the natural disaster. Tough financial situations are a key driver of mental distress among farmers, according to experts.
"We're in a fragile place because once you get through the flood itself and the adrenaline wears off, then the enormity of the flood and the consequences settle in," said
"There's a huge emotional load if you're the one who loses the family business, especially if that business is how you define yourself as a person," Hansen said.
Many farmers have persisted over five years of low commodity prices, further strained by the Trump administration's trade tariffs. Meanwhile, net farm income has fallen nearly 50 percent from its peak in 2013,
Farm debt has risen more rapidly over the past five years, increasing by nearly a third since 2013 to levels last seen during the 1980s, according to Perdue's testimony.
And though loan demand remains historically high, the
Farm families live through hope and optimism from one year to the next, but when things get tight, there's often a rise in anxiety and depression, experts said.
Farm families often have held the same land for generations, and it means everything to them, said
When threatened with the loss of land, stressed farmers increase their workload, but sometimes the farmers become so overwhelmed they can't sleep properly or make sound decisions. That's when counseling helps them manage their behavior and their farming operations, Rosmann said.
"Any threat to the loss of the land, or the assets needed to farm, and farmers react by doubling down in their work ethic," Rosmann said. "But they have learned how to take into account their behavioral well-being, so they don't overdo it as much."
About 55 percent of people who contact Rosmann are men, which shows they're not as reluctant as they were even a decade ago when women were still more likely to seek behavioral health assistance, he said. He receives between four and 12 contacts a week.
Increasing awareness of mental health and emotional well-being in farm magazines and newspapers has helped. Community meetings involving businesspersons and farmers strategizing together also help curb social isolation and broaden options when making sound decisions, Rosmann said.
Nearly all of a family's 2,800-acre farm flooded in
Difficult decisions about selling land affect everyone in the family differently, and not always at the same time, said
Both Rosmann and Griffin recommend a broad approach to supporting farmers that includes therapists, financial counselors, attorneys, farm management specialists, career specialists and faith-based providers.
Between 1985 and 1994, Griffin was a mental health counselor with a farm hotline called Farmers Assistance Counseling and Training Service, or FACTS, which ended when farm bill funding dedicated to addressing the 1980s farm crisis dried up, Griffin said.
He went on to participate in Agriwellness' collaborative projects, directed by Rosmann across seven Midwestern states, which ended in 2014. Each state had a helpline that advised callers on legal and financial issues, disaster assistance and accessing free counseling services, while the program provided support groups for farmers and families.
"People need help," Griffin said. "They are not going to pull through it by cowboying it through on their own without any other assistance."
Lawmakers acknowledged the need for mental health support in the 2018 farm bill, which President
The Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network would provide mental health support for farmers via grants to state departments of agriculture, state cooperative extension services and nonprofits. They would develop stress assistance programs, including counseling, farm telephone helplines and websites, training for advocates, support groups, outreach services and activities, and when necessary, home delivery of assistance.
Rural and farm advocacy groups sent a letter to congressional appropriators
"I think there are a number of people across the state who are waiting for that funding to come down, so they're equipped to hire people with expertise in behavioral health," said Griffin of
Farmers hadn't started the year optimistic about government assistance. Many already were anxious about late passage of the farm bill in December, followed by a government shutdown that strained the USDA and other government agencies, according to advocates.
Now, the floods may have stripped many farmers' land of the soil it needs to grow crops, which could take years to return to production. Some farmers have been storing grain for several years in anticipation of better prices, but floodwaters eroded their land and contaminated the grain. Neither USDA disaster programs nor insurance policies cover stored grain. Crop insurance may cover inputs, such as chemical and fertilizer, but it won't provide additional income to support households.
"It's going to spell the end for a lot of folks who don't have the capability to ride it out until things get rosier," said
Even losing livestock, for some, can affect mental stability, said
Some families have spent decades building up a herd with marketable traits and genetics, said
Farmers can expect a gap before federal funds hit.
The Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, the longest continuously serving farm crisis hotline in the country, provides no-cost vouchers for counseling services to farmers in need.
Even before the floods, the hotline was receiving record numbers of calls for counseling outreach and mental health therapy this year, according to organizers. Year-over-year program calls increased by nearly 90 percent when comparing
Year-over-year program calls increased by nearly half when comparing
"We are seeing a gradual increase, and we expect in the next few weeks we'll have pretty close to 50 percent more calls than we've experienced in the last year or two," said the Rev.
Extension agents are planning six "Communicating with Farmers Under Stress" trainings across
Bank lenders need help, Harris-Broomfield said. Many must tell farmers and ranchers they may not qualify for loans that sustain their operations. During the first training, prior to the flooding, a USDA county executive director said she had a farmer crying in her office because of financial challenges and she didn't know how to respond, Harris-Broomfield said.
"This is exactly the kind of thing that will happen more due to the stress of the flood," Harris-Broomfield said.
During the interactive sessions, participants will practice having awkward conversations, Harris-Broomfield said. Oftentimes people are confident meeting neighbors' physical needs, but are afraid to ask uncomfortable questions, such as whether people are considering suicide.
"The most important thing is to not ignore someone who you think is experiencing extreme stress," Harris-Broomfield said. "Practice active listening without judgment. There may be some awkward conversations, but this is an awkward time. Things are going to be tough and we just have to roll with it."
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