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For many farmers and ranchers, seeking mental health treatment is a matter of access and stigma

Montana farming
Posted at 2:27 PM, Feb 23, 2022

CLYDE PARK, Mont. — The mountains of Montana are stunning to witness unless they’re key to your business.

“Our winters have been pretty easy," said Garrett Hamm, a farmer in southern Montana. "But it’s kind of a Catch 22 coming off the drought from last year. We look up in the mountains, and there’s no snow up there, so it’s not looking very good for next year either.”

Hamm is among the tens of thousands of farmers who just weathered one of Montana’s driest years on record. He is among the millions of farmers in America facing some stress from someplace. And, like the vast majority, he doesn’t plan to address his stress with outside help.

“There’s really not much they can do other than talk to you face-to-face," Hamm said of mental health therapists. "But your day-to-day problems, they’re not going to fix them.”

The mountains aren’t just natural wonders. They’re roadblocks.

“If I wanted to go into town, it’s minimum 45 minutes to get somewhere," Hamm said. "And depending on the time of the year, it could be twice as long to get somewhere."

Alison Brennan is an extension mental health specialist at Montana State. She runs the state’s “first statewide stress management resource, designed specifically” for those on farms.

“We can talk about physical health, and there’s no shame or stigma around that," said Brennan. "So, why can’t we talk about mental health?"

The latest numbers show Montana with the third-highest suicide rate in the country. The states among the 10 highest are largely, if not almost entirely, rural. Resources are typically fewer and further. And it goes far beyond farming. A survey last year of Montana teens found roughly 1 in 5 had thought seriously in the past 12 months about suicide. One in 10 had tried it.

“I don’t think anyone truly understands the depth and breadth of the issues," said Ray Merenstein, who runs the Colorado chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Those who study rural mental health all agree the two biggest obstacles are access and stigma.

“How can people actually get to it if they don’t have transportation or if they have to take care of their kids and they don’t have daycare?" Merenstein said. “Even if we were able to reach each and every individual, it’s really important that we make sure they’re comfortable talking about mental health and mental illness.”

“I've got a bunch of friends," said Hamm, "and we’ll go out and drink a few beers and hang out and watch the game or whatever it is we’re going to do. And, you know, that kind of seems to be just as good as paying a bunch of money to somebody else.”

The mountains, the farms, and the traditions can all seem immovable. But in Montana, officials are giving a push. The state has rolled out a mobile app for those fighting drug addiction. They’ve deployed extension agents to provide mental health resources for teenagers, and they’ve received a federal grant for programs like Brennan’s. Farmers and ranchers can receive vouchers for free counseling services, in-person or online.

It’s hard not to be seduced by the scenery. It’s hard to break away when you spend your whole day on the acres you know best. That’s what’s being asked: to somehow make the discussion about mental health as much a part of life in Montana as the mountains.

“I’ve never been opposed to trying something new and stuff like that," Hamm said. "This is definitely one of the years where it might be worthwhile to check out."