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Agribusiness takes on mental health

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GOOD HUMANS: ADM grain originator Paul Ruholl headed up efforts to train colleagues on spotting mental health struggles among their farmer-customers. “My biggest takeaway in all this was that counseling helps, and we need to talk about it more,” Ruholl says. “Take away the stigma. And just be a good human, and be there for people.”
More farmer-facing businesses are training their folks to spot mental health struggles in the farmers they work with. Here’s how ADM is teaching its originators to “be a good human.”

As agriculture grapples with how to help farmers struggling with mental health — and a lack of rural mental health resources — attention is turning to the folks who work with them daily. That’s people like veterinarians, lenders and grain merchandisers.

To that end, ADM has begun training its grain merchandisers to be more aware and more helpful to the farmers they interact with on a daily basis.

“We just kept seeing these headlines come up and thought, there’s got to be something we can do to help out in some way,” says Paul Ruholl, southern Illinois grain originator for ADM.

About 71% of young farmers and ranchers deal with anxiety, and 53% battle depression, according to a January 2020 pilot study published by the Community Mental Health Journal. Not surprisingly, farmers listed money and time as their greatest stressors.

Ruholl says several people on their team sat in on a mental health webinar by Nick Weshinskey, a certified national counselor with the Farm Resource Center at Southern Illinois University. Their first reaction? “We thought, ‘Our whole team needs to see this,’” he recalls.

Since then, Dr. Nick, as they affectionately call Weshinskey, has trained about 80 ADM grain originators, offering up typical signs and symptoms of mental health struggles, but also giving them a clear step-by-step action plan for follow-up with the individual. He includes questions to ask, such as: How did that make you feel? Did you talk to somebody about that? Do you want to talk to somebody about that?

“You know, lenders have difficult conversations with farmers, but we do, too, as originators,” Ruholl explains. “Yesterday, the market was down big, and today, the market’s up big. It goes back and forth, and that can be hard to deal with.”

At its core, their strategy is to listen to people.

“We listen to understand, not just for our job but for that producer personally. We care about them personally. We care about their operations. We care about their family,” Ruholl says, adding that so far, about half their farmer-facing colleagues have gone through the training.

He adds that their goal isn’t to “fix” anybody, but to help them get to the right person who can help them. It’s like if a farmer’s car were broken down; they wouldn’t fix it, but they’d help get the farmer to a mechanic.

“Our whole ag mental health team adopted the mantra of just being a good human. Show somebody you care; listen to them. If they express distress, follow up with them — in business or personal life,” Ruholl says. “Help lead them to the right place, because by no means are we able to deal with this situation ourselves, but we can get them to the right place to get help.”

Part of what Ruholl has learned is to listen for blanket statements — things like, “I don’t know how I’ll recover from this financially” — and to recognize that may mean someone is struggling mentally.

“That was an aha moment for me,” he says. “If you’re struggling with depression or seeking counseling, there’s nothing wrong with openly discussing it. If it helps, it helps.”

He hopes those kinds of conversations will help eliminate the stigma around mental health, especially in the ag community.

“If we can help one person, we’re doing a great thing,” he adds.

4 basic skills to help someone in crisis

Weshinskey trained the ADM teams on four basic skills to help someone in crisis:

Minimal encouragement. Use brief, supportive words or gestures that encourage someone to keep talking about their feelings and situation.

Silence. Be a good listener and provide people with space to think and talk. This can also give the listener an opportunity to reset the tone or pace of the conversation.

Normalizing statements. Share similar feelings or experiences that may help combat the stigma someone may feel about receiving help. This also can offer a sense of hope.

Open-ended questions. Ask questions that encourage conversation and insight into how someone is feeling or doing in that moment.

More resources

Mental Health Assistance for Farmers and Agribusiness Leaders, offered by the Illinois Department of Agriculture
Mental Health First Aid, a training course on how to identify various threats to someone’s mental health and how to intervene
Farm Aid, 800-FARM-AID (327-6243)
2-1-1, a hotline that connects callers with local resources
TAGS: Rural Health
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