If ever there was a year to get a Christmas tree, 2020 is that year.
Fancy or plain, the Christmas tree and other holiday traditions, like lights and cookies, can bring a sense of normalcy to those who have already been through a lot.
“The advice I give and what I help people work on – on a family level – is to carry on with your family traditions,” said Monica Kramer McConkey, rural mental health specialist. She joined Ted Matthews in this role of providing counseling services at no cost to farmers and farm families. The program is run through the Agriculture Center of Excellence and the Minnesota Farm Business Management program.
McConkey began working as a Minnesota rural mental health specialist on Oct. 1, 2019.
“Who knew what would be happening in the world a few short months after I started with COVID-19 and everything hitting,” she said in a recent phone interview.
She’s spent the past year working with ranchers, farm families and farm couples on many issues. These include managing stress, difficulties in relationships, family dynamics, and grief issues following a death, a loss or a suicide. She’s also provided education to the ag industry, as well as to mental health therapists; and promoted good mental health in rural areas.
She recently completed four one-hour webinars on supporting farm youth. The training was sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Singing the COVID-19 blues
McConkey noted that farmers have done moderately-well dealing with COVID-19.
The farmer’s work didn’t stop, plus the public has been appreciative of the farmer’s work.
“For the most part, farmers have been able to carry through with what they are doing on an every day, every month, every year basis,” she said. “The difficulty has been more if they are dairying or if they are hog producers, when there were processing issues, because of COVID and plants going down. That was a very direct impact.”
For the most part, the farmers she meets with are not feeling the same stress related to COVID-19 as someone who was going to an office and now works at home; or someone who lost their job. What has impacted farmers is if their spouse or partner has been working off the farm, and there is a loss of income and insurance.
“A lot of times, that income supports the farm during difficult times,” she pointed out.
McConkey, who has always had a heart for children, says that farm kids are among those who are hurting the most because of COVID-19.
“They are now isolated at home. Most of them are now moved to full-day online learning. They are not going to school. Because they are on the farm, they are not in a neighborhood where they are seeing friends up and down the street. There is definitely an isolation piece that is difficult.
“The learning style is difficult – having to be online – that is a struggle for several of the farm kids I’m working with,” she said.
Children might not tell their parents or teachers they are struggling, because they may feel like it’s their own fault. Farm kids also worry about farm finances, the farm workload, and their parents or loved ones potentially getting sick.
McConkey says that farm kids are aware of the struggles on the farm outside of COVID-19, too. Kids know when there is stress or when there are bills to pay.
Children will often forego things when they know it will cost their parents money, she added. That might limit activities that could be very beneficial for a child at this time.
According to a survey commissioned by the National 4-H Council, more than seven in 10 kids between the ages of 13-19 are struggling with their mental health. The survey found that teens are feeling pressure to hide their feelings rather than talk to a supportive adult.
The survey was conducted by The Harris Poll from May 4-14, 2020.
“Somewhere along the line we’ve given our kids the message that we can’t handle what they need to tell us, because we have so much of our own stuff going on,” McConkey said. “We have to somehow reverse that – so taking time, talking, building these relationships is really important. Family time, stability is really important.”
The need to remain physically distant is another big challenge.
“If you do things at Christmas that you can still do – whether it’s cutting down your tree or whether it’s having a special nativity set to put up – whatever it is, the tradition that you can continue to sustain in your family, that is really reassuring to kids,” she said. “During this time, when we just don’t know what is going to happen, when it is going to end – as much structure and stability as you can add into your home is important.
“Every family usually has some Christmas traditions, and this is going to be an important year to be sure you’re keeping those up,” she added.
Dairy and grain prices only recently turned better, so farm families are playing “catch-up.”
It isn’t necessary to spend a lot on gifts this year, she said, but it is more important to do something as a family unit. If it’s not safe to gather with others or if there isn’t a lot of extra money, there are still ways to make Christmas special – whether it’s setting out special treats for the birds, visiting a state park or driving through a neighborhood light display.
Opportunities to help others
Oftentimes the act of helping others can greatly improve one’s own mood or happiness.
Writing a letter to someone or dropping off Christmas goodies as a family activity can help families and individuals become engaged in giving and positive thinking.
Reaching out to a church or school is one way to find someone who needs help, McConkey said. Donating to Farm Aid, Farm Rescue, local food shelves or domestic violence shelters are options.
When to find a counselor
McConkey says, “Don’t wait too long,” if something doesn’t feel right.
If financial troubles, drinking, drugs, gambling, violence, abuse or other activities are taking over your life, it’s time to make a phone call to find someone to help.
If someone can’t sleep at night, or if they are ruminating on the same subjects over and over, it’s good to make a visit a primary care physician just to see if there is something going on physically.
That’s a great time to ask for a referral to a therapist, too. Farmers or ranchers in Minnesota can also call McConkey at (218) 280-7785 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ted Matthews can be reached at 320-266-2390. Their services are provided at no cost to farmers.
“People have the feeling that what they are struggling with isn’t a big enough issue to have to call for mental health help, but if it is causing you stress, keeping you up at night, disrupting your ability to parent, or from work, no issue is too small to call up a counselor and just talk it over,” she said.