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Improving access to mental health care for Montana farmers and ranchers

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Posted at 8:32 AM, Aug 29, 2022

Agriculture producers are 3.5 times as likely to die by suicide versus the general population, according to a study done by the University of Iowa.

“Our topography has something to do with that," said Sydney Blair, CEO of Many Rivers Whole Health in Great Falls. "It has to do with sunlight, shorter season, and isolation is a major factor on ag mental health crises.”

Frontier Psychiatry has been contracted by the Montana Department of Agriculture to create services that can reach farmers near and far.

“We deliver virtually all over video, which allows us to provide and deliver that care pretty effectively to any corner of the state,” said Eric Arzubi, MD, the CEO of Frontier Psychiatry.

To put Montana’s mental health problem into perspective, it leads the nation in suicide rates.

Montana has approximately 50,000 agriculture producers. About 20% (10,000) struggle with mental health including anxiety and depression, and 5% (2,500) suffer from severe mental illness that includes suicidal behavior.

"Cost of seeds too much. Cost of inputs too high. That of that combines too much," said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who owns and operates a farm near Big Sandy.

Tester is no stranger to the stressors on the farm. “Agriculture tends to be a business where you’re isolated. Typically, if you have issues around mental health, isolation is what you tend to do. And that’s the worst thing you can possibly do… In agriculture, we’re very weather dependent and market dependent."

Tester added that production of yearly harvest doesn’t always pan out to balance the books. He's experienced the two worst harvest seasons ever in the past two years.

“Alcohol is a depressant. And unfortunately, if you’re depressed and add alcohol, it just exacerbates the problem, right? When we get clients in that are farmers and ranchers sometimes that is part of the coping mechanism is to use alcohol… it’s just weeding through those specific coping mechanisms to get the help and support they need,” said Barb Nelson, owner of Renew Wellness Center in Great Falls.

Frontier Psychiatry provides an initial consultation and will get a patient in to see a psychiatrist in one week’s time.

“Therapists who are working with us are supporting the farmers and ranchers who call, we actually identify them and recruit them based on their own backgrounds in farming and ranching,” said Arzubi.

It’s a free service that anyone in the state can use. It is important to emphasize that the goal is never to medicate a person immediately.

“So, if their bias is that they're going to just try to put me on a medication, they have choices about that," said Blair.

It’s not only the psychiatrist’s decision to medicate but also the patient's.

“I, for example, I struggle with anxiety, and I take medication for anxiety,” said Arzubi. “I think it's important for me to be able to share that because it's just a fact of life. It's a fact of my life. It's a fact of many people's lives.”

Since the launch of the Free Counseling Access for Montana Agriculture Program the service has been adding five to six new patients each month.

“But if you get to a point where it becomes overwhelming, you've got to go talk to somebody. If it's not your spouse, if it's not your best friend, find somebody to talk to. Because I'm telling you, if you can talk about this stuff, you can find that there are ways to get through it,” Tester said.

“We have that old adage: 'Pull us up by our bootstraps and carry on.' Realistically it really didn’t work back in the day,” said Nelson. “Nowadays, we have all of these different programs that we can hook people into and get them to being the best person they can possibly be.”

There are resources available for those who struggle with mental health crises.

Visit www.frontier.care/beyondtheweather to set up an appointment for free, confidential counseling access, or call 406-200-8471 and press 7.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts The National Suicide Hotline is a free service to help in desperate times, call 988, the new Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.