Laura Negley’s bout with depression and isolation began with the fog of sleep deprivation.
Negley and her husband raise cattle and grow sorghum and dryland wheat outside of Eads, in Kiowa County southeast of Denver. Wrestling with the animals, the weather, the high costs and low prices, and the uncontrollable depredations of international trade politics were tiring enough in a good year.
In a bad year, like 2012, every one of their 10,000 acres weighed on her mind as Negley tried to sleep at night. What southeastern Colorado farmers now call a “decades-long drought” was deepening. Kiowa County would end the year with about 10 inches of rain and snowmelt, far below averages of about 14 inches.
“I hate debt, and just about the time you think you’re going to clear it and move forward, you run into another drought or event you can’t control, and you have to refinance,” Negley said.
A doctor prescribed sleep medication, but the effect lingered so much during the day she couldn’t remember phone calls with her daughter. She backed out of child care for her nieces and nephews, worried about feeling too sleepy, and retreated from family events.
By that fall, her brother threatened an intervention.
“I tried to stay home for Thanksgiving, and my brother told me he was going to come get me, and also told me that I was going to see a counselor,” Negley said. She did, and began to recover. Years later, though, she still kicks herself for not reaching for help beyond the farm before things got bad. Even her kids, away in college at the time, had no idea how she felt.
“I came to the decision a few months ago the story has to be told, and I have to get out of my comfort level,” Negley said. “These are things I haven’t shared with some of my close friends.”
Negley’s resolve to speak out about rural Colorado’s need for mental health services is one small decision in a wider state effort to improve crisis and support services in long-neglected agricultural areas. State Agricultural Commissioner Don Brown has been a vocal catalyst in a coalition that includes Colorado State University’s extension services, trade groups like the Colorado Farm Bureau and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, and crisis-response experts.
The effort runs parallel with the state legislature’s expansion of Colorado crisis services last year. It includes training for crisis-line employees on the recent challenges in agriculture, and expands their perspective on pressures in rural life. The broadening of services includes marketing funds to get word out through everything from local newspapers to feed suppliers or even bar coasters, letting rural Colorado families know they have 24/7 support available.
Bev Marquez, director of crisis-line operator Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, said about 70 percent of the staff had been trained with the additional rural crisis information by January.
Their efforts with farmers, ranchers and agricultural communities are spurred on by worries of mounting pressures on Colorado food and commodity producers. Farmers and ranchers already suffer from some of the highest suicide rates of any profession. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found 84.5 suicides per 100,000 people in farming, fishing and forestry, far above the next-highest category of construction and extraction, where 53.3 people committed suicide per 100,000 employees.
[Editor’s note: The CDC later retracted this study, due to coding errors, after our article was published. The findings were updated in a revised study that found the suicide rates among farmers and ranchers, while lower than originally reported, was still estimated to be higher than the general population among males, with insufficient data for females. A National Farmer’s Union analysis of the findings provides further insight.]
In Colorado, 194 people in agriculture and related industries committed suicide from 2004 to 2015, according to state health statistics.
Meanwhile, the economic situation in farm country has declined again, slowly but relentlessly. Brown, himself from a 100-year-old farm and ranch family near Yuma, cites a litany of Iowa State University statistics unknown to most city food buyers:
The great uncontrollable, weather, is not cooperating either. Colorado’s snowpack is at historic lows, threatening runoff for irrigated farming. Dryland farmers in eastern and southern portions of the state curse the warm La Niña weather pattern and fear even a miraculous spring deluge would not catch them up.
Brown said he and his family now receive calls every few weeks from troubled farm community acquaintances asking if they know people interested in buying land.
“We’re seeing farm sales, and we’re about to start seeing foreclosures,” he said. “There’s a feeling of desperation. You tell them to go see their banker, and they say they won’t because they know what the answer will be.”
That sense of urgency is a prime reason Brown and other state leaders wanted a crisis response system that was more prepared to handle calls from rural Colorado. Part of the education for crisis workers is understanding the language and the pressures for farmers and ranchers, from the looming importance of weather forecasts to the agricultural credit cycle to the anxiety of waiting for a crop- or livestock-sale paycheck that may only come once a year.
“When someone calls and says, ‘I can’t afford to feed my livestock,’ it’s not like they can’t feed the dog or cat,” Brown explained. “It means they can’t feed their children, it means they can’t make the mortgage, it means they can’t pass the place on to their kids. When someone says they can’t feed their cattle, it’s a big deal.”
Otero County and Crowley County health director Rick Ritter, a vocal supporter of expanded rural crisis services, likes to remind various audiences how physically taxing farming and ranching are.
“It’s hard work, and we lose sight of that,” he said. “It’s demanding, it’s long hours, and whenever you do that to your body, you’re depleting resources. And that can lead to depression.”
The Southeast Health Group, providing integrated physical and mental health care in six rural counties, prides itself on employing counselors who know the community well. Landi Wagner, peer specialist supervisor for Southeast Health’s office in Lamar, comes from a family that still farms in the area.
“What helps is folks who know what these guys deal with—the choice of feeding your family versus feeding your cattle,” Wagner said. “There’s no $1,700 paycheck coming in each month. You might be saving for three years to make one purchase. Unless you’ve lived it, you don’t have the understanding of what a hail storm can do.”
Another part of the education for crisis workers, said Marquez, is understanding and then discussing with the caller the logistics of getting more help. A rural resident in crisis may be a long distance from a walk-in crisis center, Marquez noted. But without fail, farm leaders and rural counselors also say rural residents are afraid of neighbors seeing their pickups parked outside the local mental health center. They may be more willing than city residents to drive a long distance for treatment.
A go-slow approach may also be necessary for rural residents who have never before sought mental health help.
“One of the reasons we think the hotline is a good option, which can be calls or texts, is that it lets someone dab their toe into behavioral health care even if they don’t know what that is,” Marquez said. “It’s a conversation. It’s not a diagnosis pushing someone to get an appointment or do something they don’t want to do.”
A southeastern Colorado cattle rancher, who asked to have his name withheld out of potential embarrassment for his family or friends whose stories he wanted to tell, said the most common mental health practice for most farmers is talking to their spouse. In tough times, he said, “I talk to my best friend and partner, and that’s my wife.”
He knows that can become a burden on the spouse or other family members, and that they, too, should have access to crisis lines or other counseling services to help ease the load.
“It’s a prideful thing. It’s hard to let people know you’re in that situation. We’ve made it through a couple of droughts, and my wife has been my confidant. It would be hard to share that situation with strangers.”
The swings in farm country psychology are intensified by the family nature of many operations— not only are many farmers and ranchers carrying on a multi-generational tradition, but they may be earning income or preserving the land for siblings and other relatives who share ownership and historical ties. One unexpected family or weather event can upend decades of planning, the southeastern rancher said.
“A friend just called with a diagnosis of a tumor. It’s things like that that make people contemplate suicide,” he said. “They know their insurance won’t cover it all. That’s what happened to my grandfather’s ranch; my mother got cancer, he helped out with costs, and we lost the ranch.”
This particular rancher thinks publicity about the crisis lines has gained some traction among the people he knows. He believes long-promised telehealth services, such as internet-based video counseling, could also be popular among distance ranchers valuing their privacy. A complication of that, he said, is that his area doesn’t have fast broadband—an issue throughout many parts of rural Colorado—and cell service is unreliable, too.
Champions of the crisis program said they can feel peer reactions move in both directions at any given meeting. Sometimes farmers in the audience will open up and mention their own troubles, gaining support from the room.
Chad Vorthmann, executive vice president of the Colorado Farm Bureau, said he was recently helping to host a statewide conference call with 40 to 50 local committee leaders. When Vorthmann and others described the expanded crisis services, one farmer said, “I think I could use those resources.” Another mentioned they also welcomed the help.
“It was a great conversation,” Vorthmann said. “Then one producer chimed in and said, ‘You know, when agriculture faces tough times, we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and just move forward.’ And that ended the conversation. No one wanted to step forward after that.”
Kiowa County rancher Laura Negley wants to de-emphasize the “crisis” in “crisis line” and urge people to reach out before their troubles grow to dire proportions.
“People need to learn it’s not just for feeling suicidal,” she said. “It’s a simple system, and you can talk to people who understand the pressures. Don’t wait until you can’t make it another day.” She also tells friends to treat mental setbacks the way they treat other injuries.
“If you get stepped on or kicked or flip a four-wheeler on yourself—and I speak from experience on all those—you sometimes go to the doctor,” Negley said. “If only because you have to be able to keep taking care of the animals.”
It’s a lifelong habit of farmers and ranchers to keep one eye on the approaching weather as they talk. The southeastern rancher, with 300 cattle ready to calve starting now, has had some snow but needs a much wetter spring to bring up grass.
“Five years ago, I lost one friend to suicide. Two years ago, I lost an acquaintance. The latter was a family corporation in trouble after the father died. That’s a lot of extra pressure, five generations of ranching lost to weather you have no control over,” he said. “It’s very easy to stub your toe one time and lose the business.”
Most of the crisis line staff has now been trained, community and farm board leaders are all talking up the crisis services wherever they go, and the formal marketing campaign is also underway in rural Colorado. Still, there is no clear answer yet on whether agricultural owners and employees will pick up their phones for help.
“I have led many horses to water,” Brown said. “Whether they drink or not is up to them, but we make sure they have water.”
If you need help for yourself or a family member, you can reach the 24-hour support offered by Colorado Crisis Services by calling the toll-free number 1-844-493-TALK (8255), or texting TALK to 38255.