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Thunderstorm over wheat

A thunderstorm passes over fields of winter wheat a few miles north of Billings in 2005.

My dad took his own life on the family farm in September 2016.

So begins Darla Tyler-McSherry’s story of why she and her brother, Big Sandy wheat farmer Randall Tyler, began advocating for suicide prevention in Montana and across the nation.

In an interview last week, Tyler-McSherry, of Billings, said they decided: “We have to do something. We can’t let our dad’s death be in vain. If we can save even one family, we’re going to do what we have to do.”

In the difficult days after their father’s death on his land near Big Sandy, many friends and neighbors brought food and offers of help with fall seeding. One of her dad’s friends said something that inspired her prevention website, askinearnest.org.

“In this call, he said, ‘When your dad would see someone in town walking down the street, he would stop and ask in earnest how they were doing,’ ” Tyler-McSherry wrote. “He wasn’t asking to be nosy or gossipy, he genuinely cared how they and their family were doing.’ It is one of the most beautiful things anyone has said to me about my dad since his death.

“The single most important concept I want to share with others is just that: ask in earnest to help prevent suicide in farming.”

The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Yellowstone County provided a grant to create the user-friendly askinearnest.org website designed by April Buscher. McSherry wrote the content, which was reviewed by Dr. Don Harr, longtime Billings psychiatrist and mental health volunteer. McSherry has considerable experience in health communications; she is director of student health services at Montana State University Billings and coordinator for the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force.

In June, Tyler-McSherry and her brother spent three days with a CNN news crew that reported the story of the siblings’ suicide prevention efforts.

“Since the story came out, I’ve been contacted by people from all over the country,” she said. Email messages brought words of encouragement and writers have shared their personal experiences of loss, perseverance, resilience and recovery on the farm.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester was Tyler-McSherry’s grade school music teacher. The Testers and Tylers farm adjoining lands.

Tester is a co-sponsor of the Farmers First Act, S.2712, which would establish a farm and ranch stress assistance network. It would authorize appropriation of money for competitive grants to state agriculture departments, cooperative extension services or nonprofit organizations to deliver community-based assistance, such as help lines, websites, support groups and other outreach to farm and ranch families in need of behavioral health care.

Tester’s office told The Gazette that a version of the Farmers First Act is in the Senate version of the Farm Bill being negotiated by the House-Senate conference committee.

“Senator Daines was pleased to see the language make it in the Senate Farm Bill, and is working to ensure the final Farm Bill is signed into law before Sept. 30,” Daines’ spokeswoman said in response to The Gazette’s request for comment.

Commodity prices have fallen significantly in the past few years, and threats of an international trade war give agricultural producers more stress. The Farmers First Act is a bipartisan bill that ought to be part of the safety net for the Americans who grow food for us and much of the world.

However, rural health care isn’t top of mind for most members of Congress. As representatives of the state with the worst suicide rate in the nation, Tester and Daines must speak up for good mental health on farms and ranches. The lives they save may be their own constituents’.

As Tyler-McSherry said: “It’s not a partisan issue; it’s an issue of humanity. It acknowledges that our farmers and ranchers need this help.”

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