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Erin Brown / Grand Vale Creative

Proactive management of farm stress

Ted Matthews, the director of Rural Mental Health for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, is the first guest author I have invited to write an article for Farm and Ranch Life. Ted is well-known for his work assisting farmers and their families, with over 40 years of service. Thanks, Ted, for your article and services.

Much has been written about the high rate of suicide among farmers. People ask me about numbers, how, how often, and by what means.

Although I work with families that go through pain of a loved one taking their life, I would rather focus on a proactive approach. There are things we can look for and ways we can lower the farm stress which creates a severe sense of helplessness.

When I get calls from loved ones concerned about family members talking of hurting themselves, I am usually told that the conflicted person doesn't want to call and I am asked what they can do. I believe the best option is to talk to them directly.

I recommend they ask a loved one to call me, but for their sake. For instance, a daughter can ask her father to call for her sake, so she can feel better.

Often this is helpful. If the person still refuses to call and you feel the threat is imminent, I would recommend involving others such as family members, clergy, friends, or even law enforcement.

Some of you reading this may think this is a bit extreme; my simple answer to that is always err on the side of safety. If you are wrong that he or she will not hurt themselves, you have wasted a little time and perhaps some embarrassment.

If you are right, well that goes without saying. To do nothing is the worst option.

Making life better is simple, but it takes diligence and determination. Having the support of friends and family can make all the difference.

How do you make life better? In my experience, that can be done by improving communication and changing our perspective.

Again, it sounds simple but it takes quite a bit of effort to change stuck patterns and to become an effective communicator.

Identifying the Issue: Communication. Let me start with communication or lack thereof. When men feel stressed they tend to talk less, while women tend to want to talk more.

The inability to talk, coupled with isolation on the farm, can lead men to sink further without anyone noticing. Understanding that men and women have different strategies for communication is paramount. Men must also understand that opening up is not a sign of weakness — it's a sign of immense strength.

To overcome decades of conditioning that discourages men from being vulnerable takes great strength indeed. Men and women are both emotional beings; sharing vulnerable feelings is healthy.

Changing Our Perspective to Live in a Better Reality. Humans have a habit of labeling life as good or bad without considering all of the in-between. We have a tendency to focus on the bad (what we can't change) instead of using our energy in more productive ways (looking at the good).

In my practice I like to say: "If you thought about why something happened and you didn't come up with an answer after looking at it 50 times, the chances are really good that you won't come up with the answer on the 51st try."

So, if we focus on what we can change and let go of the things we can't change, life will get better. Remember, if you don't make the decision about what you can change, someone else will.

What Are You Going to Do about It? It is human nature to blame others to make us feel better. Whose fault something is, is in the past however; the problem is now and perhaps in the future.

If you could increase your crop yields by 10 percent, you would do so without question. Why not apply that to your own wellbeing? Self-care is often neglected, but if you look at it as increasing your productivity, it makes sense. Self-care is good management for optimal yields.

We especially see the lack of good self-management during harvest when we deprive ourselves of sleep. If I am a person who needs eight hours of sleep and I only get five hours for an extended period of time, the odds of an accident are greatly enhanced. Why do we knowingly put ourselves in harm's way?

But remember, we all have different bodies, physiology and needs. Again, it's good management to look at our individual inputs needed for maximum yield and to provide them.

Changing a bad situation may take time but you can instantly improve yourself by remaining diligent about what will improve yourself, and your family relationships. I wish you well.

Ted Matthews manages the Minnesota Farm and Rural Helpline (1-833-650-2670) which serves Minnesota farm residents. Visit the website: www.farmcounseling.org. Mike Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa, psychologist and farmer. To contact Rosmann go online to: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.

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