The Splotch: In a Rural Community Plagued by Drought, Stigma Won’t Be Easy to Overcome

  • COLab is an independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition, media resource hub, and ideas lab. We serve all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.

  • Susan Greene is a reporter, editor and coach for the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She was editor and executive director of The Colorado Independent before it merged with COLab and a longtime reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. She was selected as a 2020-2021 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, and is the inaugural recipient of the Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grant for Mental Health Investigative Journalism.

  • Marc Piscotty is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Denver. Marc has covered everything from Super Bowls and the Winter Olympics to Columbine, the Aurora theatre shooting and the Democratic National Convention. He was also a part of the staff at the Rocky Mountain News that won two Pulitzer Prizes in breaking news photography and spent an entire year covering post-Columbine life in high school with reporter Tina Griego.

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EADS – “The Splotch,” as some here call the brown mark on the map they check weekly, is the color of scorched earth.

Here in Kiowa County, farmers have always relied on whatever moisture happens to fall from the sky rather than on irrigation. In August, this 1,300-person community bordering on Kansas was the first part of Colorado where drought conditions surpassed “extreme” to a level meteorologists call “exceptional.” That designation – which since has hit wide swaths of the West Slope – stands out on the drought map as a big brown pock.

Week after rainless week throughout this year’s growing season, it festered like a wound not just on local farmland, but also on the emotional landscape.

“It’s horrible, just horrible, the ways drought can affect the human mind,” says Jimmy Brown, a third-generation farmer in Eads whose wheat and grain sorghum crops withered this year, just like those of his neighbors. “I doubt there’s a person here whose mental health hasn’t been affected by it.”

If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call  1-844-493-TALK(8255)

The Eastern Plains have had dry spells. Some old-timers remember Dust Bowl conditions in the 1930s. Their children weathered extreme drought in the mid-1950s, and their children’s children endured acute dryness in 2002 and 2012. Each generation has taught the next to take the long view because they have learned that wishing – or praying – for rain doesn’t make it happen.

Yet nobody here can remember a year so parched that little grew higher than their work boots. No one recalls ground so dry that even the bindweed stopped growing. Nobody had seen so many rain clouds roll in late afternoons during monsoon season, only to watch them keep rolling eastward without bursting.

Even before smoke from the late-summer mountain wildfires wafted in, Brown says “You couldn’t see the sun here because of all the dirt blowing.” On the road to his fields this fall, his pickup kicked up enough dirt to form dust devils.

Jimmy Brown, 52. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

“You can smell the dirt. You can feel it in your nose and sinuses. You can see how everything’s so brown, so dead all around you. You can feel how it’s all so depressing,” he says.

Brown, in addition to farming, serves as Kiowa County’s elected coroner and lone funeral director. He’s not a mental health expert, but is more tuned in than most to how locals are feeling. With drought, he says, comes uncertainty, even among majority of growers who carry insurance compensating them for the losses. With uncertainty come powerlessness, irritability and dread.

“People tend to be shorter with one another, to withdraw,” he says, noting that he is no exception.

He had a hard time this year mustering the energy to feed and water his cattle, check his fences and tend to the endless other tasks required to run a farm, even one with crop failure. He followed headlines about Kansas farming communities 200 miles east producing their best crop yields ever, pondering the fickleness of drought. 

The splotch feels like a curse.

“You come to doubt if it’s ever going to rain again. You know it will, but you don’t know when. So you ask yourself what am I doing here? Why are we doing this? And what exactly is the point in it all?” Brown says. 

Parched landscape around Eads, Colorado after an extended summer of extreme drought. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

Growers speak of a rootedness – financial, family, and spiritual – needed to withstand a year as dry as this, let alone several of them. They do not speak of mental health factors, the complex mix of genetic vulnerabilities, trauma, addiction, brain chemicals, nerve circuits and other triggers that contribute to mental illness and make the ground more shaky for some than others. Especially in a county where data show residents’ discomfort talking about personal problems is 11% higher than the statewide average, they cannot know what challenges were faced by the local father whose 16-year-old son discovered his body after his recent suicide. Or by the four men with ties to Kiowa County who ended their lives two years ago – three of them within two weeks of each other, and two of them farmers.

That string of suicides prompted the local mental health services provider to offer classes on recognizing signs of mental health crisis. It held special training for loan officers, machinery dealers, auctioneers and bankruptcy clerks to spot signs of potential suicidality in their clients and urge them to seek professional help. 

Dawn Beck is a physician’s assistant at the Eads Rural Health Clinic and Kiowa County Hospital. Her patients bristle at words like anxiety and depression. If the land is sick, so will be the people who work it, and there’s nothing to be done but wait it out, she says they tell her.

“They say ‘Well, we’ve been through this before,’ even though this is by far the worst year anybody can remember. It’s a pride thing. A cowboy thing. And it’s just eating people up.”

Brown, 52, has lived here all his life except for college. The splotch, he estimates, “is the topic of 99 out of 100 conversations” here this year. Those interactions sound more like ‘‘Man, we need rain”, “Have you seen it this dry before?”, “When is it going to end?” than “I can’t sleep”, “I’m drinking too much” or “I’m feeling down.”  

“Our people are tough. They prefer to just weather the storm. I don’t think mental health is ever a topic of conversation around here,” he says.

“We talk about the things we understand – interest rates, commodity prices, land values, weed control, farming techniques. That’s how we operate around here. It’s our culture. And whether it’s right, wrong or indifferent, it’s not going to change.”

This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal. Our intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high.