Taking stock of our mental and emotional well-being

Stephanie Plaster
As farmers and agricultural providers, sometimes a family member, neighbor or client needs support that we are not able to provide. In these instances, it's okay to share resources or referrals for them to get the support they need.

As May comes to a close, we have the opportunity to reflect back on one of the most tumultuous springs we’ve had and determine the best way to move forward. Since May is Mental Health Month and the start of the new growing season, it is a good time to take a brief moment to take stock of our mental and emotional well-being and find any support needed for ourselves and others.

Farming can be a high stress endeavor.  Some of the common stressors include: financial pressures and debt load, dependence on unpredictable weather and volatile markets; extreme outdoor work conditions; lack of personal time or little time to talk through difficult problems due to excessive workloads; intergenerational differences; health, pain, fatigue or mobility issues connected to years of physical labor; strained family relationships (Shutske, 2017).

Because farming can be difficult for individuals and families, many experience financial and emotional stress as a result. There are several signs that may indicate an individual may be in need of help. These signs include: changes in daily routines, increases in upper respiratory illnesses or other chronic conditions (aches, pains, persistent cough), declines in appearance of farmstead, declines in care of livestock, increases in farm accidents due to fatigue or loss of ability to concentrate, occurrences of signs of stress in children (Williams, Farm Family Stress).  Stress can also lead to mental health problems.

According to Mental Health First Aid™, mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood through adulthood, and mental health problems are more common than heart disease, lung disease and cancer, combined. One in five individuals has mental health complications, including farmers. Services and programs like the National Alliance on Mental Health, Mental Health America, the WI Farm Center, Farm Aid Hotline, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are all good resources for those seeking mental health support.

As farmers and agricultural providers, sometimes a family member, neighbor or client needs support that we are not able to provide. In these instances, it's okay to share resources or referrals for them to get the support they need. Roger Williams, Professor Emeritus with UW-Madison Extension, offers several pieces of advice for making referrals:

  • Be familiar with available resources and services
  • Listen/look for signs and symptoms indicating help beyond your expertise is needed (i.e. financial, legal, emotional, physical, and mental health).
  • Use a direct approach. Express your concern for their welfare.
  • Anticipate concerns and fears about seeking help. Display an attitude of sincere interest and helpfulness.
  • Ask-Give-Ask:  Ask for permission, give resource, and ask for thoughts (i.e. It sounds like you are feeling___. Can I help you think about some options and resources?").
  • If you suspect someone is in danger and the person or family is unwilling to take action, call the appropriate agency. 

Conversations that address emotional topics can be challenging. Deepening our conversations and the ways we communicate can help us better figure out the kind of support needed. It allows us to strengthen our relationships and builds trust with those we are seeking to support. Communication is about more than what you say. It's about how you listen, respond, and react both verbally and non-verbally. Tips for constructive conversations:

  • Recognize underlying emotions
  • Be fully present and minimize distractions
  • Remain positive and supportive
  • Be genuine and respectful
  • Monitor nonverbal communication
  • Allow for silent moments and reflection
  • Use concise statements
  • Show empathy and compassion
  • Practice positive nonverbal communication (open posture, eye contact, nodding, and acknowledgement)

Farm families are resilient individuals, but there are times when help is needed. Take the time to recognize the state of your own emotional and mental well-being, seek out the support needed, and reach out to others to help them do the same.

Stephanie Plaster

Stephanie Plaster is the Agriculture Extension Educator for Ozaukee and Washington Counties

UW Extension