Monica McConkey

 Monica Kramer McConkey, speaker/trainer Eyes on the Horizon Consulting

St. CLOUD, Minn. – Getting support for extreme stress on the farm has been nearly impossible, but that’s starting to change as society recognizes the value of mental health services.

Farm families are beginning to say, “We need help,” and they are getting help through various resources. Knowledge of mental health issues, as well as learning ways of coping with stressors, can go a long way toward improving quality of life.

“Many of us deal with isolation – which a lot of times we feel like we value, we like not being in a city or in crowds, we like being out in the country – but it does add some interesting dynamics when stressful things happen,” said Monica Kramer McConkey, speaker/trainer with and owner of Eyes on the Horizon Consulting.

She spoke recently at the Minnesota Organic Conference on the subject of dealing with emotional stress on the farm.

“Every situation is unique, so it touches people differently,” she said.

Emotional stress on the farm

Every day, farm families deal with factors outside their control. Climate change, the global economy, government trade wars and tariffs can cause a lot of worry, but these are things that farmers have little control over.

On the other end of the spectrum are items that farmers do have in their control. The long hours, the work load and production performance may not be what a farmer asks for, but these are items they have at least some control over.

Farm families may also have to deal with addictive behaviors – from alcohol, to drugs, to food, to gambling and more. These can create a huge strain on the farm operation and its members – both those involved in addictive behaviors as well as caregivers.

There can be medical issues, from obesity, to cancer, to loss of limbs, to heart and autoimmune diseases that can cause great stress. Aging can cause all sorts of issues and stressors. Mental health issues of anxiety, depression, psychosis, schizophrenia and abusive behavior can be concerns on the farm.

In addition, family dynamics can create challenges of many sorts even when everything else is going well. Financial strain or hardship can also create stress.

While everyone deals with many items they may or may not have control over, sometimes these stressors can become too much.

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, 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.

If someone makes an abrupt sale of land or livestock that didn’t seem to be planned, or a historically neat farmstead showing signs of disrepair can be another sign that things aren’t going well.

Oftentimes when people are having mental health issues, a physical concern may bring them to the doctor’s office. An astute medical provider can help direct someone to the help they need both physically and mentally.

Individuals can also ask themselves if their sleep patterns have changed, or if there is a lack of motivation, less productivity, more of a sense of not wanting to get out of bed – or do work around the farm.

“If someone says, ‘It’s not worth it anymore,’ or ‘I can’t go on, you would be better off without me,’ that is the time to perk up your ears,” she said. If a spouse or children are exhibiting stress, that can be a sign that a farmer is having problems. Excessive trips to a casino or exaggerated pull tab playing are other warning signs.

McConkey often refers to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This model suggests that if a person’s basic needs are not met, higher functioning cannot possibly be met. The stress can become unbearable.

So if a person doesn’t have food, water, warmth, rest, or security and safety, it is not possible to meet their psychological needs. McConkey suggests that when a person becomes addicted, that need for that drug is just as strong as the need for food, water, warmth and rest and so it is not possible to move beyond that basic need.

In addition, if someone is worried about how to pay for groceries, how to feed the cows, or how to manage the farm, it’s not really feasible to meet psychological needs like friendship, self-esteem or achieving one’s potential.

She reminds farmers and farm families that are dealing with stress to be sure their basic needs are taken care of – like eating, drinking water, getting enough sleep, exercising and staying clean.

If you suspect someone is having problems that they can’t quite deal with, or even yourself, you can ask an open ended question that “gives them an out,” said co-presenter Emily Wilmes, University of Minnesota Extension educator in Stearns, Benton and Morrison counties.

These statements are:

- “I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you are experiencing, or who you are comfortable talking to?”

- “I’m someone who cares, who wants to listen. What do you want me to know about how you are feeling?”

- “It seems like you are going through a difficult time. How can I help you?”

“You don’t need to be everything. You just have to be there for them,” Wilmes said. “That’s what we really want more than anything is for somebody to be there.”

If someone expresses the idea they may committee suicide, it’s important to ask right out if that is the case. “If you feel you shouldn’t leave this person, call 911 or offer to drive them to the emergency department.”

McConkey and Wilmes encourage everyone to take a mental health first aid class. The class opportunities are listed at mentalhealthfirstaid.org. Mental health first aid is an eight hour course that teaches a citizen how to help someone who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. With the lack of services out in rural areas, obtaining this type of first aid training could be just as important as learning CPR or the Heimlich maneuver.

They also suggest that farm groups make an effort to collect and publicize resources that understand the unique challenges that farmers face. If there are resources or counselors who have completed training and show they offer real help, working with these resources might help farmers and farm families more quickly.

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.

“If nothing else, get someone in to see a primary health care provider,” said McConkey. “I would encourage you that reaching out does not necessarily mean just to a mental health provider. It could be clergy, Extension, family and friends. You have to kind of find your people that you know will hear you and understand what you are saying.”