MISSOULA — Farming and ranching can be challenging industries even when everything goes right.
So, when a pandemic, climate change, and inflation strike at the same time -- you can only imagine the stress of those tasked with putting food on the table. That stress can lead to devastating outcomes for farmers and ranchers.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports farmers and ranchers are among the most likely to die by suicide when compared to other occupations, and suicide rates overall have increased by 40% in less than two decades.
"Dick Tyler was a farmer in Big Sandy who lived and worked on his family farm since he was 12." Polished and perfected -- teenager Gus Turner recites the story of Tyler without missing a beat.
“After 60 years of farming, he began to think of himself as a burden and useless to the farm’s operation. His only solution was to drown himself in the farm’s reservoir," Turner recalled.
He’s recited the story at competitions across the region for both the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4-H. Now with a handful of accolades, it’s clear he’s done his research on the story of Dick Tyler and why the story is an important one.
“My topic was about suicide and farmers, especially in rural areas in Montana. It's a super undisclosed topic and people don't really talk about it. It's an unfortunate reality that we live in that nobody talks about this because a huge part of American livelihood is agriculture.” - Gus Turner
In learning about the life of Dick Tyler, Turner stumbled into a world of research, “the farmer is 3½ times more likely to commit suicide than an average person," he noted.
The research spiraled into a speech he uses to bring awareness to and destigmatize the topic of mental health among farmers and ranchers.
"It’s kind of something horrible, and it’s buried beneath layers of rugged individualists of farmers who aren’t there emotionally, and you just don’t really see that, so it’s hidden,” Turner explained.
Turner isn’t the only Montanan racing to address this issue. In fact, there’s an entire department shedding some light on the hardships of life in agriculture.
“It's been a tough year for a lot of folks. You know, whether it’s the grasshoppers or the drought or just volatility of the industry in general. You know, it hasn't been easy,” noted Andy Fjeseth with the Montana Department of Agriculture.
The Department secured a $500,000 grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in July. The goal is not too different than that of Missoula teen Gus Turner.
“What we're hoping with this program is that we can promote that it's okay to talk about these things, and that, you know, the producer is really the most important part of the operation, and then connect those folks with the services that are needed." - Andy Fjeseth, MT Dept. of Agriculture
Fjeseth says the program will function in three parts. One is to provide vouchers to Montana farmers and ranchers for free, confidential counseling services. Secondly, providing funding for mental health workshops and speakers. Finally, a campaign to destigmatize mental health services for farmers and ranchers.
"If we can start from a place where this is not as stigmatized as it has been and help break down those barriers, then hopefully we can help tackle the issue,” Fjeseth concluded.
While the Montana Department of Agriculture finalizes details for counseling services, there are efforts underway for mental health workshops. People who would like to get involved can visit https://agr.mt.gov/ or contact the Department directly at 406-444-3144.
If you, or someone you know, needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or use the online Lifeline Crisis Chat. Both are free and confidential. People will be connected to a counselor in their area. You can also visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for additional information