SALEM — With the historic rains and flooding in South Dakota, farmers had more than usual to deal with in 2019.

Now a student at McCook Central High School in Salem is hoping to encourage producers to open up about their stress at an event that will bring farmers, local business leaders and health care professionals together in an effort to reduce the stigma of talking about mental health.

Kayle Lauck, a junior at McCook Central and the reporter for her local chapter of Future Farmers of America, is organizing an event titled Let’s Talk: Learn How To Identify Stress & Support Our Producers. The gathering will feature booths sponsored by Avera Health, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota State Extension and will include an address by Karl Oehlke, with the Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline.

Lauck’s inspiration for the event came after attending the South Dakota Farm and Ranch Stress Summit in September in Oacoma. The gathering brought together mental health professionals to discuss ways to address the high levels of stress producers face on a daily and seasonal basis.

She was already working on a series of farm stress surveys for an earlier FFA project and the summit opened her eyes to the possibilities of reaching out to producers.

“On the drive home I was thinking that there were a lot of health professionals there, but I didn’t see any farmers there,” Lauck said. “Maybe there needs to be a community outreach, something similar we could bring back to Salem, but more with a message sent directly to the producers.”

Lauck said she hopes farmers will respond to the invitation. The event is scheduled to take place Monday, Feb. 3 at the McCook Central Performing Arts Center starting at 5 p.m. Coffee will be served and a meal of pork loin, corn, pasta salad and cupcakes will be served prior to the address by Oehlke. Funds raised from the $10 tickets will go to benefit the South Dakota Farm and Rural Stress Hotline.

She said people in attendance will have a chance to mingle with health care professionals and learn how to watch for signs of serious stress. That also means people other than farmers in the community can learn to watch for signs of stress in their neighbors. The rigors of farming can affect everyone in the community, not just producers, Lauck said, and it’s an issue of which everyone should be more aware.

“It doesn’t have to be just for farmers. It can be for bankers, business owners. Everyone that is part of the community,” Lauck said. “These farmers are the first people to go and help others when there’s something wrong, and the last people to go and help themselves.”

Awareness of farm stress has risen considerably in just the last year, Lauck said, thanks to programs like the one in Oacoma, an awareness campaign from health organizations like Avera Health and more attention from South Dakota government officials. Now that people are talking about it more openly, she wants to let producers know that they can reach out to people who can help.

That’s not always easy, she said. Farmers are traditionally self-sufficient and seeking out help for mental health issues is not an easy choice for many to make, she said. While some farmers speak openly about their feelings with their spouses, being able to talk to mental health care professionals for treatment can be vital to addressing the problem, she said.

“There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to your spouse, it’s a perfect first step. But there has to be a second step, especially if it feels like it keeps getting worse,” Lauck said.

Tracy Chase, an FFA adviser at McCook Central, said cost and distance is also often a factor in whether producers seek help. When it’s already difficult to balance the farm books, especially after a year as bad as 2019, adding another health care expense can seem like an unaffordable option.

“(Farmers feel they) don’t need another bill on top of the bills they’re already looking at,” Chase said.

That’s why Lauck chose the Avera Farm and Rural Stress hotline as the beneficiary of the upcoming event. Created by Avera Health, the hotline is open to farmers, ranchers and people who live in rural communities and is staffed by trained assessment counselors who put callers in touch with local mental health resources. Avera is one of a handful of health systems nationwide with a similar hotline, according to a press release from Avera Health.

Calls are free and confidential, and it’s something a producer can choose to approach at their own pace, Lauck said.

“That’s one of the great things about the hotline. These farmers can call when they’re in the tractor, nobody knows they’re doing it,” Lauck said.

But even with the option of confidentiality, Lauck said she hopes producers eventually don’t feel the need to hide their feelings. Talking openly about the issue is a big step toward helping those who need it, and she hopes the event Feb. 3 will encourage producers and their fellow rural community members to be on the watch for signs of stress and address it head on.

“What I’m hoping can happen from it is that it opens up a conversation with an excuse of bringing it up without having to be talking about yourself,” Lauck said. “We should be preventative and progressive and work together to be the helpers that we are in our rural communities, especially in South Dakota. So come and get the information, and open up the conversation.”

The Avera Farm and Rural Stress Hotline can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-691-4336. Let’s Talk: Learn How To Identify Stress & Support Our Producers will begin at 5 p.m. Feb. 3., with the meal and address scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tickets for the event in Salem can be purchased by calling Kayle Lauck at 605-471-0812, Missy Lauck at 605-359-6398 or McCook Central School and asking for Tracy Chase at 605-425-2264.