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Montana State researchers, collaborators launch projects to help combat stress for farmers and ranchers

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A Montana State University agriculture student moves cattle at MSU's Red Bluff Research Ranch in March 2022. PHOTO BY ADRIAN SANCHEZ-GONZALEZ / MSU

By Anne Cantrell MSU NEWS SERVICE

BOZEMAN—Survey results have shown Montana State University researchers that farmers and ranchers throughout Montana and the West experience, on average, a medium level of stress, which could impact their sleep, physical health, mental health and/or relationships, according to Michelle Grocke, health and wellness specialist with MSU Extension and assistant professor in the MSU Department of Health and Human Development

Agricultural stress can be caused by a range of issues, she said, including commodity prices, weather, crop yield, debt, passing a farm or ranch to the next generation, family issues, injuries and illness. She added that it can lead to mental illness, increased risk of suicide and other health issues.

Grocke and her collaborators have launched several projects to help combat this stress. These efforts include a website that provides resources, a program that provides mini-grants for people across the Western U.S. who want to improve the mental wellness of those in their agricultural communities and a project that provides free telehealth counseling services to any Montanan working in agriculture.

“MSU Extension is trying to reach people where they’re at and make information accessible to them,” Grocke said. “If we want to help Montanans – especially if they’re not going to be the ones knocking on our door asking (for help) – it seems like a really good place to focus our energy and time.”

In 2019, a group of individuals and organizations from across Montana, led by MSU Extension and first funded by the Montana Healthcare Foundation, collaborated to provide resources and solutions for farmers and ranchers under stress. The team, known as the Montana Farm/Ranch Stress Prevention Advisory Council, created a website that hosts resources for farmers, ranchers and community members to better understand the causes of stress and how to manage it. The website is called the Montana Farm and Ranch Stress Resource Clearinghouse, and it includes stress management information and links to telehealth counseling services across Montana. Since its launch in the summer of 2020, more than 14,000 people have visited it, Grocke said. The website can be found at montana.edu/extension/wellness/stress-management/mt_farm_stress_clearing_house/.

“We’re trying to add a lot of videos and podcasts and be more creative in how we’re getting content out to Montanans,” Grocke said.

In addition, a USDA-backed Western Regional Agricultural Stress Assistance Project, or WRASAP, has funded research and provided mini-grants for people across the West who want to improve mental wellness in agricultural communities.

The $7.1 million WRASAP grant, of which Grocke is one of the leaders, is a collaboration among individuals and organizations from 13 Western states and four territories. The goals of the grant include conducting research to learn more about causes of stress and desired assistance, creating and providing stress management outreach and education to farmers and ranchers based on those research findings, creating a collaborative network of individuals working toward a shared goal, and providing direct services to farmers and ranchers, including a hotline where individuals can call and talk about their issues and get connected to counseling as appropriate.

A portion of the grant funded research reports on each state and territory, as well as one region-wide written report, Grocke noted. Those reports can be found at farmstress.us/wrasap-baseline-data-collection/.

“There is a still a lot of work to be done, but this work is helping highlight the issue of stress,” Grocke said.

Now, the WRASAP group is using the research to create outreach and educational programs, including online, self-paced classes, webinars and podcasts, as well as opportunities for training, mental health first aid and suicide prevention training known as QPR.

“There are also hundreds of thousands of dollars available in mini-grants for individuals wanting to improve the mental wellness of their community, either though professional development for themselves or if they would like to start their own outreach project,” Grocke said. For more information on how to apply, visit farmstress.us.

Finally, a new program is providing free telehealth counseling services to any Montanan working in agriculture. The program is part of a collaboration between the Montana State Department of Agriculture, MSU Extension and Northern Ag Broadcasting, along with Frontier Psychiatry. The program is called Beyond the Weather, and it is funded by a portion of a roughly $500,000 grant from the USDA’s Farm Stress Assistance Network that was awarded to the State Department of Agriculture. The grant provides six sessions of free counseling to each person.

Grocke said the program received about 200 calls in its first three months, and she noted that the counselors providing the telehealth counseling services are well-versed in what it’s like to work in agriculture.

“The nice thing is that they’re tailoring the therapy,” Grocke said. “They wouldn’t suggest things like people taking a vacation during calving season. They’re not talking about work-life balance. That’s why a lot of folks who work in agriculture are reluctant to go to counseling – the counselor needs to have that sort of innate understanding.”

Montanans who are working in agriculture who would like to participate in telehealth counseling may call 406-200-8471, extension 7, Grocke said. More information is available at frontier.care/beyondtheweather.html.

Grocke said that regardless of where a person lives in Montana, agriculture is the state’s backbone.

“It’s part of our economy, livelihood, families and culture,” she said. “And it can be really stressful; There are so many stressors beyond people’s control.”

Tricia Seifert, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development, praised Grocke’s approach to the work.

“Dr. Grocke and the team approach this work in the collaborative spirit that is what maintains community across rural Montana,” Seifert said. “It is neighbor helping neighbor.”

Cody Stone, executive director of MSU Extension, said MSU Extension aims to improve lives and communities across Montana by focusing on locally identified, statewide needs, and farmers’ and ranchers’ mental health is an important area of this focus.

“Dr. Grocke’s programs and scholarship are exceptional and critically important to MSU Extension’s efforts to address this issue,” Stone said.

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