The mental health of farmers in Texoma

In the last two decades, the CDC has reported a nearly 40% spike in suicides amongst farmers.
Published: Aug. 18, 2022 at 6:32 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ELECTRA, Texas (KAUZ) - Mental health has become a nationwide conversation in recent years, but one group who’s been seemingly left out of the conversation, who is one of the biggest here in Texoma, is farmers.

Kenneth McAlister has been helping his family run Double L in Electra, Texas, since the 80s. They focus on cattle, wheat and cotton, and like many others across the state, the recent drought is not only threatening profits, it’s threatening well-being.

“Go back to the stress life; what do we do,” McAlister said.

Finding out what to do is a path with various twists and turns, and in the ag industry, those turns are filled with the monsters of Mother Nature, growing input costs, and isolation in the fields.

“Mentally wise, you kind of grow accustomed to it, you know. It’s part of the life,” McAlister said.

And while it may be “part of the life,” it’s also why the CDC has reported a nearly 40% spike in suicides amongst farmers in the last two decades.

That pressure is only growing with the rising costs of inflation.

It’s something Francisco Abello pays close attention to in relation to Texoma. Abello grew up working on farms in Argentina and now serves as the district economist for Texas A&M Agrilife extension office in Wilbarger County.

“Especially this year with high costs and a drought, we need to sharpen our pencils, and we need to be very, very careful with the decisions we’re making and the investments we’re making,” Abello said.

McAlister says the drought and record-high input costs have taken his stress to new heights.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts production expenses for farmers and ranchers to reach nearly $412 billion this year, the highest number that’s ever been recorded, meaning that mental health is likely to take a hit. While work is being done to curb the problem, a stigma is embedded in agriculture of farmers keeping to themselves regarding mental health, making a solution increasingly difficult.

“We all got our own ways of exploding,” McAlister said. “We’ve all got our own ways of doing crazy s***, okay? It’s one of those deals where you just got to roll your sleeves up, pull your head down, and suck it up. As one of my old friends said, ‘suck it up, buttercup.’”

Responses like these are the main reason mental health discussions have rarely revolved around farmers; in fact, it took over an hour for McAlister to say mental health during our meeting.

“Most guys in the ag industry got more pride than to want to tell a total stranger their problems,” McAlister said. “Most guys probably in the same boat don’t really want to go tell their neighbor because they got more pride than that.”

Fighting this stigma is the biggest hurdle, and one man leading the charge is Dr. Ted Matthews, or his clients call him Ted.

Ted lived in Wichita Falls after being stationed at Sheppard Air Force Base and eventually became the mental health leader for FEMA. It was there when he noticed an interesting trend.

“This all started for me back in 1993 when I was a therapist for FEMA during disasters and after we looked on our books and a farm business management instructor called me and asked if I worked with farmers, and I said, ‘well yeah, the program works with anyone who calls, it national disaster,’ and then I looked on our books and in a year, not one farmer had ever called, not one,” Dr. Matthews said.

Today, Ted’s home state of Minnesota now has a 24/7 hotline for farmers to call into trained operators; if they feel on edge, their call is directed straight to Ted.

“If we don’t help them, things will get worse,” Dr. Matthews said.

While Minnesota has made leaps and bounds in addressing farmers’ mental health, the Texoma area has almost no resources specifically for farmers, and the Lone Star State is just taking its first steps.

Recently, the Texas Department of Agriculture, along with its partners, received a grant of $100,000 to replicate something similar to the formula of Ted Matthews called the Texas Farmer’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program. The leading proponent of the program is the Farm Response helpline which launched in February. By calling, farmers can talk to operators trained to handle specific agriculture stressors so they don’t feel like they’re talking to, as Kenneth McAlister would put it, “a shrink.”

“If a non [agriculture] person goes to a therapist and tells them all about how stressful their job is or how awful everything is, some solid advice might be: take a vacation. Right? Take a break, and get away from there. Well, that advice doesn’t work for the farmer who’s in the harvest season. We don’t have that option,” agricultural law specialist Tiffany Dowell Lashmet said. “Maybe you just need to get a new job? That might be solid advice. Well, that may not work for somebody who has the family farm that’s been there for five generations, and they’re trying to keep this legacy going, and they have all that pressure.”

For the partners of TDA, the hope is to expand the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program, focusing on early intervention, but $100,000 can only do so much right now. Even with an increase in funding, the only way to stop the stigma surrounding farmers is to break it down within themselves.

“Oh, I can’t get to the doctor’s office, or I don’t have access to a doctor; that’s just I’m not seeking care because I’m worried about what my neighbors in my community will think about me, and that’s what frustrates me the most,” Miquela Smith, Healthy Texas specialist for Texas A&M Agrilife, said. “If I could change one thing, that would be it. If people are too embarrassed to seek out help, no wonderful program or perfect hotline will make any difference.”

But, opening up can make a difference.

In my day with McAlister, we talked about everything from wild days as a teenager to the sudden death of his son and how he got through it. Our day ended with a tour of his Dad’s 1957 Cadillac, a smile from Kenneth, and a firm handshake to go with it.

However, like anything in the life of agriculture, smiles are short-lived.

Nine days after our meeting, Kenneth got word from his insurance agent that it would be cheaper to destroy the crops he worked so hard to grow and collect a claim rather than sell what came out of the drought. In a way, the drought we’re seeing is a lot like the stigma farmers face.

The possibility of growth is there, but the unknown farmers are so used to often destroys it; without recognizing the problem in our community, silence will only persist.

“A man told me one time; you’re the biggest gamblers in the world. You’re the only guys I know that would go put a $100 bill out there and hope when you come back, you at least get it back,” McAlister said. “You can either make the right decision and buy all the right stuff at the right time, or we could lose it all in a matter of a heartbeat.”

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the United States.

Copyright 2022 KAUZ. All rights reserved.