Minnesota is a forerunner in providing mental and emotional help to famers. Through a contract with the Minnesota Centers of Agriculture Excellence and the Farm Business Management Program, the provision allows access to Minnesota Rural Mental Health specialists Ted Matthews and Monica McConkey. The service is free and done with complete confidentiality.
McConkey, of Bejou, Minn., was a key presenter at the 2021 virtual Midwest Women in Ag Conference. Her style was interactive; she quickly got to the heart of having resilience in adversity and power over your thoughts. It is the same message she passes along to farm families.
While farmers have the option to meet with her virtually, or drive to her location, for the most part, McConkey goes to them. “The last thing I want is for farmers to have even more stress trying to find time to talk to me, even when it means in the evening after their milking is done.”
Here are experiences she’s encountered that could help anyone anywhere:
Work with someone who understands agriculture. The hindrance of trying to relate to someone in the mental health field who does not know a steer from a heifer has been removed. McConkey grew up on a farm and was involved in 4-H and FFA. She gets the ups and downs. Her 18-year-old son makes up the fifth generation to work her family’s land. Her clients from across central and northern Minnesota vary and so do the issues they face. Her sincerity and familiarity make their time meaningful. She literally and figuratively steps into the trenches with her beloved farmers.
The stigma surrounding mental health has lessened and farmers have become more comfortable in discussing their emotions.
Pay attention to farm youth. McConkey noticed that no one was talking about youth. Her background in working with at-risk kids has led to McConkey making certain they’re heard.
“Parents try their best to not burden their kids, but they pick up on the stress,” she says. Sadly, she sees that their first reaction is typically feeling that it is their fault.
“They worry they have cost too much money; the equipment broke down while they were using it, they did not work hard enough, or fast enough,” she says. “They carry a unique weight. They are put in charge of expensive equipment; valuable livestock and the margin of error cannot be great. Their minds are not always doing what it should — there’s normal kid development — and it all helps to add to the pressure.”
The fact that many farms are struggling to survive also adds concern as farm kids worry if there will even be a farm to work or provide for them when that is what they had hoped to do. For some who do not wish to remain on the farm, the worry is an expectation that they will.
Recognize farm women under stress. She also recognizes the unique stress women face. “With the increase in females being the primary producer on the farm, there has also been a higher percentage of women who are overwhelmed attempting to balance daily workload, raising children and the business side of farming,” McConkey says. “They face unique challenges. They often find it necessary to seek out lenders, crop insurance agents or consultants who believe that a woman can handle a job that is still considered primarily a man’s job.”
Note special challenges for married couples. McConkey helps her clients create a balance in their life. When meeting with married couples, she explains, “Their farm is the third partner in their marriage and often the most important — it is what gets the most attention, time, money and energy. The health of the farm and livestock depend upon the health of the producers.
“They are the farm’s largest asset, but how much time do they spend taking care of themselves vs. time they spend taking care of animals and equipment? At some point, it’s going to catch up with them — physically, mentally and emotionally.”
Create time away from the farm. Taking time off and stepping away from the farm is a healthy practice that she sees younger generations often better able to implement. She emphasizes that a vacation spent on the farm is no vacation!
The fears are typical of farm families: the farm being able to survive, expansion questions, mounting debt, transitioning for the future, urban growth — it all piles on the shoulders, especially if you don’t use time away as a relief valve.
Seek help. Her goal remains helping individuals and families get control of their thinking while they navigate stressful situations and make decisions that impact the future of their farm.
McConkey says she’s grateful for the foresight the Minnesota Legislature had in making certain the mental health of their farmers was addressed. She’s also grateful for the relationships she has with the resilient people she loves.
Resources, practical strategies, helpful information and support for farm families who have lost someone to suicide is available on her website: eyesonthehorizon.org. It’s helpful information, no matter where you live. You can contact McConkey directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McClain writes from Greenwood, Ind.