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Depression Can Be Hard To Talk About, So Farmers Turn To Twitter For Support

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Ranchers and farmers living in the Mountain West are vulnerable to all kinds of things—drought, fluctuating crop prices, trade wars—and in part because of those things - depression and suicide. But there's some help out there, from an unlikely source.

It's called #agtwitter. It started as a digital place where farmers and ranchers could get advice on the best fertilizer or farm equipment.

Caleb Carter said a lot of people follow the hashtag. He works in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Wyoming but essentially he's a traveling consultant for farmers and ranchers. On any given day, Carter said farmers ask him for all sorts of advice, like "What's wrong with my tree? Why are my tomato plant leaves curling?"

But what they don't do he said is talk about themselves. The hashtag AgTwitter, though, is changing that and Carter said farmers are sharing their own personal stories on the app, from worrying about how to put food on the table, to reflecting back on a time when they wanted to give up.

He said it's been a powerful experience to see all these conversations open up.

"If nothing else it helps realize, 'Oh wow, this person who looks like they've had it all together and is always on Twitter and is always sharing their stories and sharing all this stuff, they're struggling with this, too,'" said Carter.

He added that the digital space is perfect for farmers who are often isolated because of what they do.

"Because of that isolation it's really easy for that thought to really take over and for you to be like, 'Oh man, all the other guys I talk to at the coffee shop, everybody else, they're all doing great.'" Carter said that can leave farmers thinking: "I'm the one who is struggling here, not sure if I'm going to make this payment, or not sure how I'm going to do this or that."

Wyoming has one of the highest rates of suicide in the country, and Dr. Carolyn Pepper said so do all the other neighboring states. Pepper is a professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Wyoming. She studies suicide in the Mountain West and said there are many reasons why farmers in our region are susceptible to depression and suicide.

First, "We are social creatures, and when you live in a rural area, you're surrounded by fewer people," she said.

Then, there are the environmental stressors specific to the job.

"If you are a farmer or rancher and weather is bad that year," Pepper said, "that creates an economic burden on you."

And let's not forget the Westerner's cultural reputation.

"They're willing to go out and live in a harsh environment and solve their own problems. But part of that comes with a belief that maybe you're better off if you don't show your emotions and your weaknesses," said Pepper.

So is tweeting for help the answer? It depends.

"If we're using social media to separate from people around us, that can have negative effects," Pepper said.

But she also said it can be positive if farmers are using it to connect with people face to face, at least virtually.

Stephen Schueller agreed. He's a professor in psychology at the University of California in Irvine. His work deals specifically with the relationship between mental health and social media. He said digital spaces have some advantages.

"One way that they're different than spaces in real life is that it's less stigmatizing sometimes to be able to go onto an online space," Schueller said.

He said this can be especially true for rural areas where services are limited.

"There's one mental health clinic, and so if people see you going there, they know what you're doing," he added.

Schueller broke down social media users into three different groups — one percent of people are posting, about nine percent are interacting but the other 90 percent are just there watching. Still, Schueller said even if you're not tweeting or responding the experience can still be powerful.

"This kind of instance of this hashtag and these farmers that you're talking about, it's powerful for these people who are writing, and the people who are responding," Schueller said. "But it's also powerful for other people who might be suffering through similar things that are looking but not engaging."

Schueller said it's an interesting moment for social media. But it's not always good.

"Instagram actually has a lot of communities that on there that are sort of pro-anorexia that are promoting the thin ideal and trying to help people figure out ways to diet and restrict, and do all these negative harmful things," he said.

Of course, that gets at a persistent question of the moment - just what responsibility do platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have in controlling their content. Schueller said, a lot. But while that debate goes on he said he hopes more positive hashtags like AgTwitter continue to crop up.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Maggie Mullen is Wyoming Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. Her work has aired on NPR, Marketplace, Science Friday, and Here and Now. She was awarded a 2019 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for her story on the Black 14.

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