Farming towns shift mental health training to community members

Feb 20, 2019

There are about 20 people in a basement conference room at the Wyoming County Agriculture and Business Center, sipping coffee and playing an introductory name game. Participants will learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression, suicidal thoughts and more in a course called Mental Health First Aid.

These people aren’t mental health professionals. They’re agricultural workers, they’re neighbors, and they just want to help.

Charlie Baker said the kind of people who usually end up dairy farmers tend to be strong, individual, “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” types of people. He has worked in sales, connecting dairy farmers with animal care products, cleaning gear and more for about 20 years. Before that, he and his wife had a dairy farm of their own.

They’re both taking this class to have more “tools in their toolbox.”

Baker said the dairy economy is tough, and when he visits farmers, he wants the skills that allow him to “be clued in and help” them.

“It’s a general consensus out here that, ‘I’m not sure how much longer I can do this, I’m not sure.’ I’ve had guys tell me that, ‘I’m in this until my feed runs out. I’m looking at maybe April or May and we’re going to have to do something different.’ ”

Jo Beth Rath, the director of workforce development for Goodwill of the Finger Lakes, is taking the class with a coworker. She said she had two reasons for coming — one personal and one professional.

Personally, someone close to her family died in a murder-suicide three years ago, so she is passionate about mental health advocacy. Professionally, her work is mainly with AgrAbility, a USDA-funded program making agricultural work accessible to people with disabilities.

She said farming communities are small and tightly interwoven, so people don’t necessarily want to do something like park their car outside of a mental health facility and have everyone in town know about it.

Mental health issues can't always be fixed by self-reliant farmers.
Credit Caitlin Whyte / WXXI News

“It’s a society that has always been self-reliant. And mental health issues, we can’t always fix them ourselves and we don’t always have the tools," Rath said. "So, I think it’s probably just going to take some time to be acceptable to ask for help. And we have to build that. And we have to be able to recognize that somebody needs it. You know sometimes somebody is just having a bad day and that’s a bad day. Sometimes it’s too many bad days.”

Organizers of the class said access to mental health care in rural areas can be a challenge. Depending on the situation, the right care might be as far as Buffalo or Rochester, so having community members who can help people right away is valuable.

Dan Welch is the assistant director of New York FarmNet, an organization that works with farm families to provide personal and financial help.

“When you’re managing a farm, taking three or four hours out of your day to make that trip becomes a significant barrier to getting assistance, and there’s even parts of the state where we’re even looking at longer drives to get to appropriate resources.”

Joan Petzen is a farm business management specialist with the Northwest New York Dairy Livestock and Field Crops team. Like Rath, she talked about being part of a smaller community.

“Something as simple as somebody not going to church on Sunday that normally comes most every week," Petzen said. "You know, reaching out to say, ‘Hey, we missed you, can you go with me or can I pick you up?’ Something like that. Just to make it easier or make people feel I am welcome.”

She said providing resources like these classes gives more people in the community the tools they need to know how to react and help farmers.

“There’s a lot of good neighbors in the agricultural community. They’re a group that looks out for one another. And I sense that the people who support farmers and those that are in support businesses, as well as other farmers, really want to see everyone be successful and to get through this difficult time.”

If you or someone you know is struggling, call the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text 741741.