For the past three decades, one individual has been responsible for responding to calls from Minnesota’s farmers who need help managing stress. Ted Matthews is and has been the only counselor available for farmers to turn to in their times of need. Now, a plan is before the state’s legislature to increase funding and hire a second individual.
“[Ted] has been doing it for 30 years, last year , he worked with 20 farm families, 22 couples, 45 individuals and eight farm business management instructors,” said Brad J. Schloesser, executive director of the Southern Minnesota Center of Agriculture and Dean of Agriculture at South Central College, during a recent phone interview.
Part of Schloesser’s responsibilities as executive director of the SMCA is to oversee Minnesota’s rural mental health program.
“Following the real tough financial crisis that was experienced in farm country here in Minnesota in the 1980s, early ’90s, the decision was made, and I think some grant funds were made available to bring a person on to answer calls, do face-to-face counseling and provide support,” said Schloesser.
That individual was Ted Matthews, and he has been at it ever since.
Schloesser explains that when he has spoken to Ted about his career, “he said, ‘over a course of 25- 30 years, I have had a tremendous amount of satisfaction knowing that I am helping people.’ and he said, ‘You do not find better people than those that are tilling the soil and providing food and taking care of their families.’”
The program is entirely confidential for the farmer. There is not any diagnosis process or clinical records. It is just an individual talking things out, sharing their frustrations and Ted providing advice and support.
There is no cost for anyone to speak with Ted. The program is funded through the state, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and Minnesota Colleges and Universities.
“This is typically how it works, I am here in North Mankato, on South Central College Campus. It is generally unannounced. Ted gets the call from an individual that is a farmer,” he said. “Ted will show up here on campus and he will connect with that individual. It is a neutral location, he says that it is generally best to meet in a neutral location.”
Ted will work out of whichever college campus or farm business management instructor office is most convenient for the farmer. The college will find them a quiet and private place to work.
“A farmer would show up here on campus, we don’t ask them to sign in, we just say hi. They know they are meeting with Ted. I basically find them a spot that they can have a confidential conversation,” said Schloesser. “Last week, there were three individuals that came through here, I have no idea who they were.”
Farming can often be a high stress occupation. A late spring with delayed planting puts stress on an operator. Making cash flows positive and securing financing for the year is always a challenge. Even transitioning the operation to the next generation and working closely with family members and business partners can be stressful.
Suicide among farmers is more common than a person may think, and it is often not talked about. Many of Ted’s calls are related to individuals discussing or threatening suicide.
“I am looking at the sustainability of this and realizing Ted is close to 70 years of age. He is not going to do it forever. I was asked to provide testimony in Saint Paul, in both the legislative bodies and it appears as though we are likely going to see support to add a position. That will be a good thing, be able to spread out the workload,” he said.
In addition to Schloesser, Keith Olander, Director of AgCentric, also testified before the state House and Senate. He expressed the same message as Schloesser, that there is a need to increase the Rural Mental Health Program.
“What we are hearing is that the leadership in both the House and the Senate are supporting this, to direct some funds to increase the rural mental health support for the state of Minnesota’s farmers,” said Schloesser.