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Two Americas: Mental health care important for rural Midwest farmers

lowell neitzell
Posted at 5:53 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-06 00:01:11-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Mental health care is important for everyone, but for some, the stigma surrounding it keeps them suffering in the shadows.

When they do seek help, it can come with a litany of obstacles — especially in rural areas.

Lowell Neitzell is a fourth-generation Kansas farmer.

His journey with mental health problems began when he was a young man with the loss of his father.

Neitzell told KSHB 41 News reporter Leslie DelasBour his wife first noticed something was off with him.

"I realized there was something wrong. My wife reached out to me and grabbed me one afternoon or one evening and said, 'Hey, you're not really right, right now," Neitzell recalled.

In rural communities, there's a stigma surrounding mental health care. Neitzell said it made him reluctant to seek help.

"At an early age, grandma and grandpa taught me we're tough, you know? You have a bad day, you suck it up and keep trucking," Neitzell said.

But, the stresses and daily tasks a farmer handles day-in, day-out can take a toll.

"You’re by yourself and there is nothing to do but sit and watch and listen. I mean you’ve got the radio on but it's background noise and your mind is racing about 'What if this breaks down? What happens if they are talking rain tomorrow? How much rain are we going to get?' And you can go down the rabbit hole really fast," Neitzell said.

Even after seeking out help, Neitzell said he spent a lot of time explaining the ins and outs, and stresses, of farming to his provider.

"They’ve helped me out, but a little bit of the lack of knowledge of farming and the stresses that we deal with on a day-to-day basis — their lack of knowledge is kind of a hindrance. So a lot of times when I’m on my session I’m spending 15-20 minuets of time [explaining] the dynamics of the farm, the dynamic of what I’m doing," Neitzell said.

The lack of understanding isn't the only challenge farmers face in getting mental health care. Insurance to help cover the cost can also be an obstacle for some.

For others, lack of access to services, technology and the reluctancy or fear of speaking up keeps their problems bottled up.

"I personally knew a couple of individuals that I knew that [took] their life, and it's a tight-knit situation in a small rural community. But by the same token sometimes when they most need it, people don't reach out," said Deb Ohlde, director of grower services with Kansas Corn.

Neitzell said farmers and other agricultural workers sometimes feel there isn't another way out of a situation.

"A farmer or a rancher — they might be getting ready to see themselves getting ready to lose the farm, or they are in debt so bad they don't feel like there is another way out, and the last resort is to take their own life," Neitzell said.

Neitzell and Oldhe agree it's time to rid their community of the stigma around mental health and learn to help each other.

"I think the more that we can get it out there that it's OK to talk about it and maybe lower the stigma, I think there's going to be a lot more people that come out that didn't realize they had a problem," Neitzell said.

"It's so important that family and neighbors and other farmers talk to each other and reach out and just suggest, 'Hey there's an option if you're potentially thinking that you might need some support," Oldhe said.

Kansas Corn has aggregated several mental health resources for farmers on its website.

If you need someone to talk to, resources or coping strategies, the National Suicide Prevention 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, seven days a week.