By TOBIE NELL PERKINS, The Herald
ROCK HILL, S.C. (AP) — Tom Garisson’s family has been farming for four generations. He remembers following his father around their dairy in Anderson as a small child.
When he graduated from Clemson, his father was ready to retire. So Tom and his brother, Bart, leased the farm with its 300 dairy cows.
In 1990, Bart and one of the farm’s employees died in a silo accident.
“We got covered up with grain, and I was in there with them,” Tom said.
He was the only survivor.
Life wasn’t the same for Tom after the loss of his brother.
“There’s no one else closer to him than me, and for him to die in that silo right beside me. Can you imagine all the guilt I went through, and all the emotional part of it, and trying to run the business without him?”
Garrison sought counseling for “depression, all that goes with the grief and the mourning,” he said.
He made progress, started a new business and built a new life. Then came legal disputes over the farm and friction in his marriage.
Tom said he needed mental and emotional support.
That’s when Adam Kantrovich, a professor of Agribusiness at Clemson University, suggested he look into a program that helps farmers in South Carolina deal with mental and emotional health problems.
The program, called SC AgriWellness, provides free counseling for farmers and farm families.
PURSUING A SOLUTION TO A CHALLENGING PROBLEM IN SC
The idea for the program came from J.E.B Wilson, a fifth-generation farmer from Chester.
Wilson is a participant in the Liberty Fellowship, a state-based program that allows members to “pursue creative solutions to the State’s greatest challenges.”
Wilson’s project, as part of the fellowship, was creation of SC AgriWellness. He was recently awarded $20,000 through the McNulty Prize Catalyst Fund. Wilson was one of five recipients chosen from the United States, Nigeria and India.
That money will help fund the efforts of SC AgriWellness. The program also has received funding from the state, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
“South Carolina is such a growing state, but I think over half our counties have actually lost population, and a lot of these counties are rural counties,” Wilson said. “So you know, some of the outlets farmers used to have, maybe their church family or civic group, aren’t as strong as they used to be due to the population decline. So farmers are kind of increasingly isolated. I just saw this as an opportunity to help spotlight some of these issues.”
Wilson said he’s often heard of farmers committing suicide because they fear losing their farms. Data backs up Wilson’s concerns: A survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau in 2019 shows that 87% of farmers cited fear of losing their farm as a significant stressor, and 46% said it is difficult to access a therapist or counselor.
Wilson joined with stakeholders to make SC AgriWellness a reality.
Kantrovich already had created a curriculum about farm stress when he was at Michigan State University. In 2015, the issue came to Kantrovich’s attention during a financial crash in the farm industry.
“We began to see a rash of suicides, suicide attempts and other issues that indicate significant stress levels,” he said.
When he moved to Clemson, Kantrovich continued to focus on mental health in the farming industry.
Kantrovich said he often hears from farmers who do not have health insurance and are hesitant to seek help. Access to treatment in rural areas also is a barrier. Programs like SC AgriWellness can break through those barriers.
Katronvich’s Farm Stress curriculum offers several resources and works to inform individuals about farm stress and the effects of stress on the brain and body.
Garrison has helped to spread the word about SC AgriWellness.
“I have friends throughout the state who have had tragedy, and bad luck if you want to call it that, or unfortunate things that have happened to them, and most pale in comparison to what I’ve been through,” Garrison said. “This program is for people like that.”
Garrison said he hopes others will take advantage of the program.
“Today, my mental state is good,” he says. “I try not to look back. I just want to look on, press on toward the goal line.”
HOW TO ACCESS COUNSELING SERVICES
SC AgriWellness operates through the South Carolina Farm Bureau. Farmers and their families can call a hotline, 1-800-968-8143, to set up counseling sessions or talk to a crisis counselor.
They can receive three free counseling sessions from First Sun EAP, a network of counselors that helps businesses and industries. According to First Sun’s website, the company is meant to “address the mental health crisis striking America and get solutions into the hands of those who need it most.”
Counseling is available in person, on the phone or via text.
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