MADISON, Minn. – Monica Kramer McConkey refers to herself as a Ted Matthews clone, but “without the beard.”
It’s a humorous way to compare herself – a younger, tall and lanky licensed professional counselor – with Ted Matthews – a mental health practitioner with salt and pepper hair and over 40 years of experience helping farmers through their toughest battles.
They don’t look at all alike – that’s the joke – but what they have in common is a strong desire to help Minnesota’s farmers and farm families who have stress affecting their mental health. Both of them also have a goal of teaching the farming community how to develop mental fitness and resiliency.
Monica recently accepted a Farm Business Management contract to provide mental health support to farmers, farm families and children in stressful situations across Minnesota.
Before McConkey began in this position on Oct. 1, Matthews was Minnesota’s only subsidized counselor dedicated to helping farmers and farm families.
Now, she is taking phone calls, too. Farmers are asking for her business card, and she has requests to provide training for those who work with rural populations, especially farmers.
That’s what Matthews has been doing for many years, and he’s glad McConkey is here to help ease the load. Matthews works out of Hutchinson, and McConkey works out of Detroit Lakes. One of them can reach farmers that are at their wits’ end within hours when needed.
For a while, McConkey has been reaching out and providing counseling. She has more than 20 years of experience in the behavioral health field as a counselor, program supervisor and administrator most recently at Prairie St. John’s, Fargo, N.D. She started her own company, Eyes on the Horizon, in 2018 to provide education and training on the topic of emotional stress on the farm.
She’s told the story of her own family. In the 1980s, her dad reached out for help when things got too difficult on the farm, but there wasn’t much help available to him. He persevered anyway and found people he could talk with to help him get through that time.
McConkey’s parents, brother and nephew continue to farm in northern Minnesota.
“I couldn’t do this job without the path that I’ve had growing up on the farm. We were very involved and had the celebrations and joys as well as the heartbreak and the stress and the worry,” she said. “You bring all of that with you, and you become part of the service that you offer.”
A child in the 1980s, McConkey was very aware of the stress her parents were going through. She understood how the weather could wipe out the year’s crops, and she often wondered how they were going to make it.
She remembers the day she walked into the house, and her mom was crying because they didn’t get their operating loan. Monica remembers worrying about what was going to happen to her animals and where they would live. Through those types of experiences, she wants to be certain that farm children and their teachers/mentors have access to mental health support as well their farming parents.
Recently, she spoke to the Southeast Minnesota School Counselor Association about the unique challenges that farm kids face. Presenting with her was Meg Moynihan from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
“It takes a while for people who are not from an ag background to understand what’s going on,” McConkey said. “They see the assets – the equipment, the trucks, the land, the farm, whatever. What they don’t understand is we don’t have cash laying around, so my kid can’t be in hockey this year, or whatever the case may be. So that’s a big education piece.”
She reminds all farmers and farm families to be sure their basic needs are taken care of – like eating, drinking water, getting enough sleep, exercising and staying clean. Simply sitting up straight and taking deep breaths can help reduce emotional and physical stress.
McConkey encourages those living in the rural community to be aware when someone or themselves may need mental health help. There may not be many signs that someone is having difficulty coping with life or meeting their own needs or those of their family. In other cases, signs are present that someone needs help.
If someone normally enjoys spending time drinking coffee, playing darts or cards with friends, or going to church – and they stop – that can be a sign to ask if they need some help.
“Is there a change from ‘baseline’ functioning – how I know you on an everyday basis and what your habits are like? What is your hygiene? How do you typically dress? How do you care for your children? If you start seeing changes from that baseline behavior, that means something is going on,” she suggested.
She and Matthews both want to remind the ag community that it’s never too early or too late to give them a phone call to talk about stress, exhaustion or mental health.
To get in touch with either McConkey or Matthews, Ted Matthews can be reached by phone at 320-266-2390 and Monica Kramer McConkey’s number is 218-280-7785.
Minnesota Department of Agriculture also offers the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline. This free, confidential service is answered 24/7 at 833-600-0270 X1. Calls are answered by trained staff and volunteers. More information is also available at minnesotafarmstress.com.