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Seminar addresses stress management in farming communities

PIPESTONE — The University of Minnesota Extension Office hosted the “Farming in Tough Times” seminar Thursday to discuss the growing need of farmers and farming families to have mental health resources available and present ways to address that need.

Pipestone and Murray County Extension Educator Melissa Runck and Minnesota Dairy Initiative Southwest Coordinator Becca Schulze explained that suicide rates among farmers are increasing. Farming in 2019 can be stressful, and the agriculture industry has changed so much over the last few decades and has new mental and emotional pressures that farmers may not be equipped to face. Additionally, Midwesterners are classically reticent to confront feelings, which makes it difficult to manage stress.

Dedicated Farmer Counselor/Therapist Ted Matthews presented some observations he has made during his work with farmers and farm families.

A common misconception Matthews sees is that people hear “mental health” and think “mental illness.” While mental illness is real, managing mental health usually does not imply the presence of mental illness. If someone injures a body part, that person would logically go to the doctor to receive treatment. The same logic ought to apply to stress management and mental health, Matthews said.

He discussed communication on the farm, observing that the number one communication problem is failure to listen. Listening, he said, does not mean fixing; it means being quiet and hearing and caring about the other person’s feelings.

“Communication means accepting people for who they are,” Matthews continued.

Everyone has a different way of managing stress, he said, and trying to change someone’s method only creates more stress in the relationship.

Matthews also emphasized that men and women tend to communicate differently, a growing concern in the ag industry as more and more women become farm decision-makers.

“Different is not bad,” he encouraged, asserting that “different” is an opportunity for more ideas.

Matthews acknowledged that a variety of factors contribute to farm stress.

“There aren’t any bad guys,” he said. “Looking for someone to blame is a waste of time.”

Farm families need to learn to work together to overcome obstacles and move forward despite frustration. One things making that difficult is that various generations have various goals for the family farm.

Older farmers tend toward the status quo, craving stability, he said, while younger farmers yearn for growth and are less risk averse. Neither philosophy is better than the other, but families need to work together rather than butting heads.

One thing Matthews encourages farmers to remember is: “It’s about how we change, not if.” Change is inevitable and can be stressful, but it can also create growth.

He also clarified that taking care of mental and emotional health depends on admitting that you feel something. Mental health professionals cannot help someone unwilling to face the hard emotions.

Matthews advised everyone in attendance to consider who to call in an emotional crisis. Having a plan increases the likelihood of actually reaching out when needed, he said.

Matthews is employed by the state to meet one-on-one with farmers and farm families. His services come at no cost and require no insurance or paperwork. He can be reached at (320) 266-2390.

Runck and Schulze also shared the following free or low-cost mental health resources:

  • 24/7 confidential Minnesota Farm & Rural Helpline, (833) 600-2670. It’s a free hotline for farmers who need to talk to someone about their stress.
  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
  • Minnesota Farm Advocates, (651) 201-6311. It helps farmers navigate problems and connect them to experts.
  • Farm Business Management Education. An instructor will help the farmer learn better management skills.
  • UMN Farm Financial Counseling, 1-800-232-9077. Free and confidential farm financial counseling.
  • Farm-Lender Mediation, (218) 935-5785. Helps farmers negotiate and/or resolve farm debt.
  • The Minnesota Family Farm Law Project, 1-800-233-4534. Works to prevent foreclosure on family farms and repossession of farm machinery and equipment. Free or at reduced cost to eligible farmers.
  • Farmers Legal Action Group, (651) 223-5400. Nonprofit that offers legal services.

Runck and Schulze emphasized that while it may be difficult to seek help, a struggling farmer can feel better and can work through the stressors that are unique to farming life.