Scott Peterson

Karen and Scott Peterson are part of a large team working for better mental health in rural areas.

ATWATER, Minn. – While nobody wants an injury, Scott Peterson is trying to use his situation for good. He had to rent out his farmland in 2019 because he hurt his back. Now he’s using his time and effort to improve mental health care in rural Minnesota.

He’s a leader in a new group called, “A Way Forward,” designed to help those in Meeker, Renville and Kandiyohi counties and the surrounding area who are caregivers for people dealing with mental health issues.

Scott quotes figures from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that suggests 20 percent of people in the U.S. are experiencing problems with their mental health. Mental health is a continuum with some people doing great, some struggling and some living with serious symptoms of a mental illness. We also know that the vast majority of those working on their mental health are successful or at least able to manage their illness, he pointed out, but the attention is often placed only on the tragedies.

There is a way forward to better mental health if we can get over the negative attitudes associated with these conditions and diseases, he said.

Scott and his spouse, Karen, have known personal tragedy when their niece – who they had tried to help – died by suicide. They’ve also known success when Scott’s mother developed depression following the death of Scott’s father. With help from caregivers, she was able to return to a better state of mind before her life naturally ended.

Scott and Karen also have other family members, who are successful with managing mental health issues.

“We don’t hear about the success stories,” Scott said. “The amount of tragedies we have out there are small in comparison percentage-wise to the success stories that we have out there. You just gotta keep plugging away at it.”

Scott was commiserating with his tax accountant, Susan Anfinson, when they together realized a support group was needed for caregivers. They formed “A Way Forward” in February 2019.

“The caregiver is vital in the role of helping their loved ones manage mental health issues,” he said. “Our group really supports the caregiver who may be stretched thin with responsibility and worry.”

Scott, Susan and the other leaders have reached out to three local churches, and now more people have gotten involved.

“There’s others out there that have had the same issues with their children or loved ones and felt so alone and so lost,” he said. “So they’ve joined the group too, and we’ve organized it into a support group.”

The group’s mission is to provide information on mental health resources to anyone. The group considers each meeting confidential and details discussed are not to be discussed outside the meeting.

They’ve also invited speakers to their monthly meetings, including a Registered Dietician. In their observations, Scott and Karen see good diets and appropriate medications as having huge roles in good mental health.

“A Way Forward” has also partnered with NAMI to get access to training in mental health issues. NAMI’s courses include Hope for Recovery – offered twice monthly across Minnesota – and a suicide prevention program called QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer). The class size is limited to 30 people.

At namimn.org, a monthly calendar lists where these events will be held.

Mental health first aid training is a national program that originated in Australia, said Sue Abderholden, NAMI executive director in Minnesota.

“The purpose is to actually increase mental health literacy which also includes suicide prevention,” she said. “If people are interested, they should definitely contact us and come to a class.”

NAMI’s role is to bring awareness and provide tools to help loved ones as well as friends and neighbors. This is an opportunity for the general public to learn to identify when someone is having mental health issues. They will also learn how to help someone in crisis.

NAMI is also working with UMASH (Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center) on outreach to rural areas – especially around suicide prevention.

“Everyone gets down sometimes when we see an economic crisis, particularly among our farmers – I know the dairy farmers are in deep distress right now. We want to make sure that we’re protecting people, in a sense, that we’re there and we’re watching for those signs,” Abderholden said. “The suicide rate has gone up in rural Minnesota.”

We all have a role to play to reach out and save a life. Many people have learned first aid and CPR, and this is no different, she said. NAMI can provide tools so people can learn what to do when someone is considering suicide or is deeply depressed and unable to function.

In order to keep their operations running, farmers in 2019 have taken on enormous debt by refinancing debt-free land. The land has much greater value than when it was purchased so the dollar amounts farmers can finance are much greater – but low prices for commodities plus weather woes and very high input costs have made it impossible to make the loan payments.

“We're worse than the 1980s, because the numbers are so much bigger,” said Scott.

Farm spokesman Bob Worth of Lake Benton, Minn., agrees. Bob has worked extensively with Minnesota and U.S. soybean groups. Two years ago at Farmfest, he opened the discussion of mental health after two farmers died by suicide.

“If a farmer is debt-free or almost debt-free, they will survive 2019, but you cannot make any money as it is only breakeven,” said Bob through a Facebook post. “It was really tough on just-starting farmers in the ’80s as it is today.”

He pointed out that farmers in the 1980s were purchasing too many assets and getting into trouble that way. In 2019, farmers may have a good net worth, but are using assets to borrow for operating loans, and that is just as easy of a way to get into trouble.

Scott and Karen Peterson say the financial pressure that farm families are feeling right now is tremendous. Talking about this and getting help are important for individual and community health.

It is a way forward in the 2019 farm crisis.

“Mental health issues are just as real as diabetes or heart disease, but it’s not visible,” Scott said. “If farmers would reach out and seek that therapy, it helps them get a clearer mind and realization so they can better manage their farms and the things they are doing.”

For more information, please visit namimn.org.