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North Dakota rancher shares her journey to mental wellness

Vawnita Best of Watford City, North Dakota, has struggled with depression and spent time in emergency and in-patient care to find wellness upon returning to her cattle and horse ranch.

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Vawnita Best, front right, is back at her Watford City, North Dakota, ranch after spending time in treatment for mental health. Her husband, Pete, back row, and son, Kyle, front left, supported her through her journey.
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Vawnita Best’s words on a recent Facebook post jumped out at me: “My 2020 struggle with depression and a suicide attempt is not a secret but also hasn’t been something I’ve shared or talked about.”

As a mental health advocate and friend to Vawnita, I felt compelled to reach out to her which led to this column featuring more of her story. Vawnita shared with me for my weekly opinion column rather than a news story, and I admire her courage in sharing with me and our readers.

Vawnita and I have been connected through rural and agriculture groups. I respect her passion for her family, her ranch and the Watford City, North Dakota, area. I love her big smile and the energy she always shows at meetings or events. She’s a horse and cattle rancher, a mother of a teen son, Kyle, who she cheers on through 4-H activities and sports seasons, and a wife of 25 years to her husband, Pete. She is like many rural women I know and relate to. We’re dedicated to our families, passions, work and communities.

And many of us relate to what happened recently in Vawnita’s life, either through shared personal experiences or from the perspective of a family member or close friend.

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Vawnita Best, a horse and cattle rancher from Watford City, North Dakota, sought counseling and in-patient psychiatric care and spent 90 days in an Arizona mental health facility. Today, she is back on the ranch with her husband and son. Their upcoming Best Angus and Quarter Horse sale will be held in March.
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“In the spring and early summer of 2020, I had a handful of events happen in quick succession. My response to those were negative emotions and opinions of myself that caused my mental health to deteriorate rapidly. My mind started to catastrophize every situation, large or small.

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“I was having a hard time getting out of bed, showering, taking care of the house, taking care of Kyle, making the simplest decisions, or completing the smallest tasks at home and at work. I didn’t want to see or talk to people. I felt intense shame for the way I felt and the opinions I had of myself and others. Pete and my sister, Kim, encouraged me to seek help for depression.”

By August 2020, Vawnita sought a prescription for an antidepressant from her local doctor while her husband and sister researched two counseling options in Williston, North Dakota, 60 miles from home. While she visited both in the next few months, they weren't a good fit.

“I didn’t feel a connection with either one and I felt like neither understood agriculture or a livelihood dependent on weather and commodity markets," Vawnita said. "It was a piecemeal approach to treatment and care.”

Vawnita’s mental health struggle continued. She was "fearful of the side effects" of the medication she was on, so she didn't advocate for changes even though they didn't seem to be working.

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Pete and Vawnita Best of Watford City, North Dakota, are ranchers who have been married for 25 years. Pete supported Vawnita through her mental health journey over the past two years, advocating and researching options for counseling and psychiatric care.
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“In early December, depression was winning the battle in my mind," she said. "Hopelessness was closing in. Depression had convinced me that my family and friends would be better off without me. Fate and Jesus would say differently. My mother-in-law, Sue Best, literally saved my life.”

Vawnita was treated for emergency care in Watford City and then voluntarily transported to Minot for inpatient psychiatric treatment.

She and her support system "began to experience how disadvantaged we are in North Dakota and the upper Great Plains when it comes to wrap-around mental health and wellness services." That included the way health insurance covers (or doesn't cover) mental health services, as well as a shortage of providers, facilities and systems of integrated service dealing with mental health.

A case manager through her inpatient stay referred her to Debra Lukenbill, a psychiatric nurse practitioner.

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“If I had not had that referral, it would have taken months to access a psychiatric professional in western North Dakota," Vawnita said.

Lukenbill practices in Williston, just an hour "from our driveway to her clinic." She helped Vawnita understand that when a person is ill and systems aren't functioning properly, problems need to be treated.

Vawnita spent 90 days at Scottsdale Providence Recovery Center, a mental health facility in Arizona where she learned through group and one-on-one counseling. She spent her time recovering and learning about mental illness and what mental wellness would look like upon her return to her family and ranch.

“There was a continual focus on gratitude at SPRC and living your best life through a grateful mindset,” said Vawnita.

Vawnita had considered herself alone in her mental health journey and recovery, but people reached out to her about their own journeys when she returned home.

“I cannot express how much the support of others, sharing their struggles, their bravery and willingness to share their stories helped ease the shame I had for my struggles,” she said.

“I still think about how my family was impacted by my response to depression. Kyle told me just the other day that he pays special attention in mental health class after my struggle. We didn’t have mental health class in school during the farm crisis of the 1980s. I’m thankful mental well being and mental health resources are included in school curriculum today.”

While Vawnita sees more openness to mental health struggles as a step in the right direction, she also sees room for improvement.

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“Our places of worship would benefit from a better understanding of mental health and integrated service approaches. Last year, a regional mental health summit was hosted in Watford City. More opportunities like this will continue to normalize mental illness and increase services that promote mental wellness in rural North Dakota,” she said.

No matter our location or circumstances, let’s normalize mental wellness. Talk about it after reading Vawnita’s words today. Share your experience. Schedule the appointment. Seek the referral. Come alongside your loved one who needs you in their mental health journey.

Pinke is the publisher and general manager of Agweek. She can be reached at kpinke@agweek.com, or connect with her on Twitter @katpinke.

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