by Sally Colby

As if farmers don’t have enough stress, numerous current events in world and in the ag community have led to additional stress and insecurity about the future. Ted Matthews, psychologist and director of Minnesota Rural Mental Health, said when he worked for FEMA, he never received any calls from farmers. He learned the reason is that farmers simply don’t call psychologists.

“Knowing that,” said Matthews, “we decided we’d better find a way to communicate with them. Far too often, when we hear mental health, we think mental illness. If I say ‘I’m not mentally ill,’ I don’t have to do anything about it – I can still handle it. The problem is mental health means just that – mental health. Focusing on mental health means getting healthier, feeling better than you do.”

Matthews said the two keys in looking at mental health are determining how we can be healthier and how we can prevent ourselves from getting to the point where it goes too far and becomes mental illness. “The problem is, we never know how far ‘too far’ is – ever,” he said. “We find that out when we go too far. Be aware of that and understand that keeping stress, anxiety and depression lower is really important.”

Any number of stressors may play a role in triggering stress that goes beyond what someone can handle. Farmers routinely deal with out of control factors such as weather, livestock and crop disease, breakdowns and personnel issues. In agriculture, the line between farm stress and personal stress isn’t always clear because the farm is the family.

People respond differently to stress, so it’s important to know what’s normal for each individual. Signs of depression include sadness, anxiety, emptiness, hopelessness, pessimism, irritability, loss of interest in activities, fatigue, change in sleep patterns, appetite and/or weight changes, overall body aches and headaches. In some cases, people begin to disperse assets, increase life insurance policies, experience more farm accidents and may take less interest in livestock or crops.

“It isn’t a matter of are you [stressed], but how are you going to handle it?” said Matthews. “We never know how much stress we can handle or how much stress others in our family can handle. One thing we do know is farming is not like other occupations.” Matthews said if a farmer has invested in land, livestock and equipment then loses it, it’s impossible to get back in – and that’s a scary factor that creates stress and anxiety.

Matthews said it’s important to look at ourselves as human beings and evaluate our own potential stress and depression. “There is nothing more complex than human emotions,” he said. “I need to look at what I’m feeling and understand and accept the fact that I have a right to feel that way, because if I don’t, I’m not going to go to the next step which is ‘What can I do to feel better?’”

Another important factor is the negative energy that comes when we look at things we can’t do. “No one has more energy than what they have,” said Matthews. “If I am focused on all the things that are wrong, I don’t have the energy to focus on what I can do. That can become overwhelming, and I can truly believe there is nothing I can do. And if I believe there’s nothing I can do, there’s nothing I can do.”

Matthews said this is the time to step back and consider the options. “‘Better’ is not that exciting of a word,” he said. “We want it fixed – we want to know something has been done, that everything is good. But the truth is very few things are like that.” Matthews said by focusing on “better,” life will be better than if the focus is constantly on all the things that are wrong.

One frequently discussed concept is being nice, and Matthews said that extends to being nice to yourself. “If you’re nice to yourself,” he said, “you have the ability to be nice to other people. If you take care of yourself, you have the ability to take care of other people.” Matthews added that while the “nice” concept sounds easy, it isn’t. “When we focus on all we don’t have control over, we become angry and don’t focus on the good and positive,” he said. “If we don’t give ourselves space for that, it doesn’t exist.”

In his work with suicidal individuals, Matthews said they don’t think they’re in “that place” until they’re actually there. “Isolation is a huge issue in farming,” he said. “It’s critical that if you notice anyone in the family pulling back from what they normally do, it’s cause for concern. If they don’t want to talk about it anymore, be concerned. I’ve heard over and over from people who have attempted suicide that the world would be better off without them – they truly believe that. They get into negative thinking that becomes deeper and deeper. It’s important to take a collective approach.”

Matthews said there are measures families can take now, including becoming familiar with clergy members and social workers in the community who are willing to discuss depression and suicide. “There are people who can help if you aren’t comfortable talking about it,” he said. “Call your hotlines and find out what they’ll do.”

As a psychologist, Matthews said if there’s an attempted suicide 500 miles away, distance prohibits him from doing anything immediately. However, he can call the sheriff’s department. “That is the best avenue to get help right away,” he said. “If I call the sheriff’s office, they immediately go out and usually take the person to the ER. Even if it’s going to take me five or six hours to get there, I know the person is safe.”

Although it’s difficult to make that call if you aren’t sure whether the person is truly in a deep, dark place, Matthews said it’s better to make the call than not. “Being a little embarrassed if you’re wrong is a small thing,” he said. “Being right may mean saving someone’s life.”

The Farm Aid Farm Crisis Support number is 800.327.6243; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 800.273.8255.