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Talking through it: Arkansas pastor addresses farmers’ mental health with podcast

JONESBORO, Ark. (BP) – Last April, Archie Mason received clear confirmation that the podcast he hosted was meeting a long-neglected need and could literally save lives.

That Farm Life, a podcast the pastor of Central Baptist Church started at the behest of several fellow farmers and church members, had built momentum since its launch about a month earlier. Episodes until then had dealt with stress in marriage – a worthy topic that is still addressed. On April 12, though, guest Mardon Layne talked about the suicide of his father, a career farmer.

A farmer himself, Layne talked about the hard times when it seems impossible to break even financially or pay off your debts. He witnessed the toll it levied on his dad in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

“He kept getting down and down and finally they took him to Memphis [for a mental health evaluation],” Layne said on the podcast. “All you had back then were shock treatments. They’d shock him and it made him not remember much and stuff.”

His father would be there two weeks before returning to the farm. A few years later, the process repeated itself, with his father commenting that he wouldn’t return to the center again. Time passed and the occasional good year mixed among the bad, but it ended one day when he took his own life.

Layne’s voice trembled with emotion as he described the day he found his father, the support from their community and the tough days that followed in trying to manage the farm and finances while working through his own bone-shattering grief.

The 50th episode of That Farm Life dropped today (Feb. 7), with the topic of listening well and being an advocate for others. Since last year, discussions have centered around mental health, but also addressed the importance of community, marriage, family and how faith weaves its way through all of it. Currently, listeners can be found in 46 states and 28 countries.

The podcast is produced through the Agri Health Network, a non-profit that works to provide “stress assistance” to farmers, ranchers and others in occupations related to agriculture.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, farmers rank among the highest in suicide rates. Mason is a lifelong farmer who grew up with a 40-acre bean field for a backyard. And even as he was well-aware of the stress that comes with the job, he didn’t know how many of his peers were dying from it.

Which, in itself, points to one of the main problems.

“I didn’t realize the suicide rate was so high in the farming community even though I was in the midst of it,” he said. “It just wasn’t something people talked about.”

And so the idea goes, to help people talk about it, perhaps start with listening about it.

“We’re hoping to help people see the signs of stress, mental illness and if someone is thinking about suicide,” Mason said. “We want to encourage the farming community to check on their friends.”

That’s going to require some changes in definition, he added.

“If you meet up with someone at the coffee shop and ask if they’re OK and they say, ‘Yeah, I’m OK.’ That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re OK,” he said. “Look for the signs. How are they taking care of their animals? How are they taking care of themselves?”

The need for a focus on mental health re-affirmed itself at last year’s SBC annual meeting when the Agri Health Network booth received a flood of interest. The group has already reserved a booth for the 2022 gathering in Anaheim, Mason said.

Erasing the stigma around suicide will take time. Many instances on farms are disguised as “accidents,” said Mason, who also serves on the SBC Executive Committee.

“It’s been a crisis and we’ve had a lot of people tell us [this podcast] has helped them,” he said. “They said they’re glad we talk about these things.”

To help build community, Mason and others host “grower meetings” where steaks are grilled and the talk centers around farming, but also marriage, parenting and how the Gospel is a part of it all.

“I grew up in the country. It’s something I’ve passed down to my kids and grandchildren,” Mason said. “This ag world is kind of my passion.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call 911 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Line at (800) 273-TALK in the U.S. For Canada, please call (833) 456-4566.