Faribault resident, Miss US Ag MN, using her reign to erase mental health stigma in ag industry
Breannca Bussert was stunned when she learned about the high rate of suicide rate among famers, ranchers and farm managers.
According to the notes she saved a February SafeTalk training session, which certified her as a go-to person for those in need of mental health resources in the agriculture industry, the suicide rate for farmers, ranchers and farm managers is 2 to 3.5 times higher than the national rate of 14.5 per 100,000 people.
“I wasn’t aware of how many farmers are actually affected by [mental illness],” said Bussert, a Faribault High School graduate who grew up on an area farm. “I knew it was a big thing, but I didn’t realize how many farmers had actually taken their lives.”
In September 2019, Bussert was named the 2020 Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota. The program, which started in the southern region of the country, is fairly new to Minnesota and involves promotion of the agriculture industry during community events, such as county fairs. Many of Bussert’s duties have shifted to an online format due to COVID-19, but she plans to represent Minnesota at the National Miss United States Agriculture Pageant in Florida this June, or a later date if it’s postponed.
Inspired by her research and her personal connections, Bussert is now using her title as 2020 Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota as a platform to eliminate the stigma of mental health issues in the agriculture industry.
Bussert said she knows quite a few farmers who struggle mentally, especially as many deal with financial burdens during the coronavirus pandemic. The virus and supply chain issues have forced hog farmers to put down the animals they’ve raised, dairy farmers have needed to dump milk, and apart from that, social distancing has taken a toll on their mental health.
Even before coronavirus hit, a poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which surveyed rural adults in May 2019, revealed that financial issues (91%), farm or business problems (88%) and fear of losing the farm (87%) also impact farmers’ and farmworkers’ mental health.
Rural Health Information Hub cites other common stressors for farmers as falling commodity prices, natural disasters that have harmed crop yields, and increasing levels of farm debt.
“It’s hard for [farmers] to see the bright light at the end and to keep moving on, because a lot of them are struggling to deal with [these issues] on their own,” said Bussert.
During her reign as Ms. United States Agriculture Minnesota, Bussert wants to erase the stigma that has particularly impacted older generations of farmers, who grew up during a time when talking openly about mental illness was less common. Shame, embarrassment and a lack of awareness can prevent farmers from seeking help.
The SafeTalk training Bussert attended in Mankato made her aware of the multitude of mental health resources available specifically to those employed in agriculture, and she’s on a mission to bring awareness to these resources. One podcast she recommends is Red River Farm Network, in which farmers share their personal experiences of dealing with mental health conditions.
Meg Moynihan, ag marketing and development coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said MDA and the Minnesota Department of Health partnered with the SafeTalk company, LivingWorks, to make the mental health safety training more applicable to those living in rural areas. They’ve offered training throughout the state, including in Faribault last year. She’s gratified that people like Bussert want to use their platform to promote mental wellness for ag workers.
“We really have a culture where we all like to help each other, but we have a hard time accepting help for ourselves,” said Moynihan, also a farmer. “… It’s important to keep everything in ship shape on the farm, but we don’t think the same about our own personal wellness. We need to do what the farm needs, but the farm is only as strong as we are.”
Bussert said she’d like to complete more training beyond SafeTalk and possibly work with mental health professionals, particularly counselors that focus on farming in Minnesota. With them, she’d like to figure out ways to implement further programming.
For those who aren’t in the ag industry, Bussert encourages supporting local farmers not only on a mental health level but on an economic level, since the two can go hand in hand. One of the best ways to support farmers, she said, is to shop local, buy from vendors at farmers markets and research products.
But farmers’ mental health doesn’t solely depend on how well their business is doing. During COVID-19 especially, they could be dealing with unmet social needs.
“If you know a farmer and notice they might not be acting quite like themselves, reach out and say, ‘Hey, I notice this is different about you,’” said Bussert. “… And don’t be afraid to ask them if they’re struggling with mental health (issues), and don’t be afraid to give them the resources that can help them.”
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