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Cowboy Up: How Mental Health First Aid Helped Oklahoma Farmers

There is nothing more terrifying than seeing a wall of flames stretching from horizon to horizon, headed toward your home with voracious disregard for generations of toil, sweat, prayers and determination to make a life out of dirt, grass and too little rain.

Over the past decade of drought, northwestern Oklahoma farmers and ranchers have watched this scene play out too many times. Blizzards and tornadoes are an expected part of life on the prairie, but wildfires quickly wipe out one’s livelihood, home and hope in a matter of minutes. The sooty remains hold the ashes of security, peace of mind and the ability to provide for your family, livestock or pay off creditors.

For some, the devastation and loss can be too much and things like hopelessness, overwhelming grief, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ensue. These are all things that cowboys don’t discuss. They cowboy up, reign it in, get a grip and ride it out. They don’t talk about it, let it show or ask for help. Instead, some choose to end their life.

In April 2018, the Rhea Fire hit and engulfed a large portion of northwestern Oklahoma. The fire spread quickly through canyons and pastureland in Dewey, Woodward, Major, Custer and surrounding counties. The fire rampaged through canyons surrounding the Canadian River, jumped the highway and headed straight for us in rural Dewey County.

I sped west to gather our pets, cut wires to get cattle onto green wheat pasture and removed a few cherished items from our home. This was our second evacuation in two weeks, so I prepared myself for the worst. Luckily, our home was spared. But many others lost farms, livestock and livelihoods.

Area extension personnel met to discuss strategies for helping agriculture producers, 4-H families and survivors who needed credible research-based information and support. As a trained Mental Health First Aider and Oklahoma State University Extension Family and Consumer Sciences educator, I used my Mental Health First Aid training to educate and remind the community to watch for signs of depression and talk of suicide among farmers, ranchers, and those affected by the fires. I sent Mental Health First Aid materials to the community and made referrals to trauma counselors vetted through our mental health coalition.

If we don’t know what to look for or how to support one another, it could be too late. This is what I wanted to help prevent.

Previous fires in the panhandle taught us that seeing one’s lifework destroyed, having to euthanize cattle by the dozens and staring at burned-out homes triggered not only financial ruin but also despair for many, resulting in some taking their own lives. With Mental Health First Aid training, we now know how to support one another following traumatic events, provide the help and support needed and rebuild together as a community.

Mental Health First Aid made a real difference in Northwest Oklahoma. It can make a difference for other communities too. I encourage everyone to get trained in Mental Health First Aid and equip yourself with the skills to help those around you in both crisis and non-crisis situations. You can help save a life.

Lesa Rauh is a trained Mental Health First Aider.

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