U of M provides mental health and stress support for Minnesota farmers

Note: This is the first in a series of articles detailing the University of Minnesota’s outreach to farmers in Greater Minnesota and around the country.

Low farm income, a lingering trade war and other issues affecting agriculture are increasingly causing stress and mental health issues for farmers in Minnesota and around the country.

The University of Minnesota has stepped up to fill the gap for farmers looking for mental health resources.

More than 90 percent of American farmers and farm workers say financial issues impact their mental health and cause stress, according to a May study from the American Farm Bureau Federation. Business concerns and the fear of losing a family farm also cause mental strain, as do extreme weather and rural isolation, the study shows.

At the same time, less than half of those surveyed say it’s easy to access mental health services in their area.

In response, U of M Extension in April announced the formation of a new rural stress task force working directly with communities to connect farmers and their families to mental health resources in Minnesota. At the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH), spearheaded by the U of M, healthcare professionals are working to cultivate resilience among farmers during difficult times.

Mental health practitioners are increasingly concerned about the stress level of America’s agricultural workers.

During the farm crisis of the early 1980s, the suicide rate among farmers was nearly twice that of other white males over the age of 20, according to the National Farm Medicine Center. Today, commodity prices are low and operating costs are on the rise, increasing the chances of a second farm crisis — this time exacerbated by extreme weather and geopolitics. Taken together, farmers are facing stressors like they haven’t seen in decades.

The University’s expertise comes from the life experiences of its staff.

“I was a child of the 1980s farm crisis, and I remember some very sad things happening because of the economic situation in farm country,” said Trisha Sheehan, an Extension educator in Willmar who serves on Extension’s task force. Sheehan’s work focuses on connecting farm family children to mental health resources. “The awareness level is there now, which I think can cause real stress among children. In the ’80s, there was a different kind of stress because you knew something was up. People were on edge, but you didn’t know why, exactly. Our young people are more aware of what’s going on today because of access to social media and the media in general. This is true for farm economy related issues, as well.”

Extension launches rural stress task force

Extension’s task force will train farmers and agriculture-related professionals to identify stress in themselves and others. Educators will help connect farmers to Greater Minnesota mental health management resources already available to them, such as doctors, physicians, school counselors, churches and religious organizations.

Extension will also train its employees across Minnesota to better work with stressed individuals.

“This is a multifaceted issue and it covers a wide range of subtopics,” said Emily Wilmes, a Stearns County Extension educator and the director of the task force. Mental health and stress have long been a focus of Wilmes’ work: she has organized and presented “Farming in Tough Times” seminars for Minnesota farmers, focused on dealing with farm stress, mental well-being and building resilience.“We want to get resources out there and be present in these communities, working with individuals and with families to help them with whatever their stress may be.”

UMASH projects reach farmers in Minnesota and nationally

Over the last year, UMASH has partnered with the state of Minnesota and grassroots organizations to promote mental health among rural communities. Recently, it funded three ongoing projects to address the needs of women and youth in agriculture and tell stories to combat the stigma of mental health problems.

UMASH partnered with the Ag Health and Safety Alliance to expand a health and safety program equipping agriculture students with the tools they need to identify and address stress and mental health problems in themselves and others. The program reached nearly 800 students over the last year.

The Center partnered with Extension and American Agri-Women to launch an interactive webinar series to help women in agriculture identify and manage stress on the farm. More than 1,000 farmers in 46 states have participated since December.

Finally, UMASH joined forces with the National Alliance on Mental Health Illness Minnesota to expand Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) training in Greater Minnesota, helping residents identify and respond to early warning signs of suicide. This program is also collecting stories from farmers and farm families about living with depression or being a suicide loss survivor, and will be sharing them in the agricultural community to normalize conversations about stress and raise awareness of mental health resources.

“Farming is a livelihood and a way of life, one that has both rewards and hazards,” said UMASH Director Bruce Alexander, a professor in the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “It’s important that farmers, farm workers and their families in Minnesota and beyond be healthy in all facets of their work and their lives: financially, physically and mentally. Our mission is to help agricultural communities be as healthy and productive as they can be.”

Extension’s Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline is at 1-833-600-2670 x 1.

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