Brookings, S.D. - In 2017, 192 South Dakotans committed suicide. The greatest number reported in the state's history.
This fact is not lost on SDSU Extension, an organization dedicated to serving South Dakotans with research-based information, resources and a trusted team for more than a century.
"The number of suicides reported this past year is very concerning," says Andrea Bjornestad, Assistant Professor & SDSU Extension Mental Health Specialist. "Research has demonstrated that there is a high suicide concern in rural areas. With much of South Dakota being rural, our communities are experiencing this firsthand."
Since 2013, Bjornestad has focused on methods to reverse this trend, researching the mental health status of agriculture producers in South Dakota.
With the opioid crisis knocking at our state's borders and many rural communities without mental health professionals or services, Bjornestad and the SDSU Extension team isn't waiting to respond.
Today, SDSU Extension staff work collaboratively with South Dakota State University faculty, as well as experts from across the region, to implement mental health programming which targets agriculture producers as well as other rural South Dakotans.
"Someone needs to initiate the conversation," Bjornestad explains.
One way to do this is through the Mental Health Frist Aid program, a national train-the-trainer style program developed and proven in other states. The program engages SDSU Extension staff and community members so they can identify, understand and respond to signs or symptoms of mental health issues or substance abuse.
"Mental Health First Aid is not training community members to serve as counselors," says Bjornestad. "We will train community members who come in direct contact with agriculture producers and others who may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, to understand how they can intervene. We train them on how to connect those in need with qualified mental health professionals who can help."
Suzanne Stluka, SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director, explains there are many community members, like bankers, agronomists, veterinarians and educators, who, like SDSU Extension staff, serve in a trusted advisory role to many of South Dakota's agriculture producers and their families.
"Our team is on high alert. Because we work so closely with South Dakotans, we've had many tough conversations with those we serve," Stluka explains. "Mental health intervention is not an area of expertise for our cow/calf, agronomy or community vitality faculty and staff, but they are often the trusted partner producers open up to, so they need to be equipped to help."
Launched in November 2018, and funded through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provided to Purdue University, SDSU Extension staff from across the state will be trained to become Mental Health First Aid trainers. These staff will return to their communities to host one-day workshops to train interested community members.
Why here? Why now?
With more than a century of experience to call upon, 2018 is not the first time SDSU Extension staff have focused on suicide prevention and mental health. Bjornestad explains that mental health is declining among producers today much as it did during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.
"Chronic stress plays a large role in mental health. There are many things farmers cannot control, stressors that have become chronic, like multiple years of low market prices, natural disasters and health care costs," Bjornestad says.
She adds that when these stressors are coupled with typical challenges farmers and ranchers face - uncooperative weather, livestock illness or machinery breakdowns - it can put agriculture producers at high risk for depression, suicidal thoughts or ineffective coping behaviors, such as substance abuse.
SDSU Extension tribal local foods associates, Jason Schoch and Patricia Hammond, see Mental Health First Aid trainings as a beneficial resource which they will provide to the Pine Ridge Reservation community as part of an AgrAbility grant.
"Providing a support system for people is so important here, because behind every challenge is a mental health component," Hammond explains.
Because of the critical role mental health plays in the lives of those they serve, Hammond and Schoch made mental health the focus when they applied to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) for the grant.
"When we met with tribal partners to discuss how we could best serve their community, the most consistent barrier that came up was mental and behavioral health," Schoch explains. "We will be working with prospective new farmers living with disabilities and help them begin farming, in a subsistence way, through assistive technology and support networks."
In addition to Bjornestad, Schoch and Hammond will be working closely with other community stakeholders like Becky and Dallas Chief Eagle with All Nations Gathering Center.
"We named our grant, Tatanka Ki Owetu, or The Renewal, because many see hope in this grant. We are focusing on mental health through building a subsistence food system that allows farmers to help feed their family, friends and community," Hammond explains.
"SDSU Extension is building on our long-term investment and relationships we have built here."
Because of the relationships SDSU Extension staff have built in communities across South Dakota, Extension and University staff are also preparing to implement a preventative approach to the opioid epidemic through two projects; Protecting the Homestead: Prescription Opioid Misuse in the Dakotas and, Expanding the Homestead: Technical Assistance to Prevent Opioids Misuse in the Dakotas.
Collaboratively implemented with North Dakota State University Extension, program content is customized for youth and adults, explains Amber Letcher, Associate Professor and SDSU Extension 4-H Youth Development Specialist.
"Our goal is to provide as much information as possible to help South Dakotans understand that opioids exist for a reason and how to avoid misuse," says Letcher, who partnered with Kristine Ramsay-Seaner, South Dakota State University Assistant Professor in Department of Counseling and Human Development and Meagan Scott, Assistant Professor and NDSU 4-H Youth Development Specialist.
Developed in Indiana, the projects are proven and only take an hour of participants' time.
"We want to create awareness of what to look for and what to do if you are concerned about the mental health of a friend or family member," says Ramsay-Seaner.
The Homestead projects will launch in North and South Dakota in rural counties that are identified as mental health shortage areas by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
"It makes sense to collaborate on this because we have a lot of similarities between our two states. By working together we have access to more resources and we can share our talents and skillsets," Scott says. "We are both extremely rural states with little access to mental health professionals. And, when it comes to addressing opioid misuse, both of our states are focusing on prevention."
The team will provide the information to rural communities in North and South Dakota through online webinars as well as face-to-face presentations. The project is funded through a grant from USDA- National Institute of Food and Agriculture and SAMHSA.
To learn more about these programs, contact the following SDSU Extension staff: