Extension educators bring better mental health care to rural communities

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Stacey Stangel
Stacey Stangel, a regional family and consumer sciences educator with Central State University Extension, is one of the extension educators offering free mental health training classes. (Gail Keck photo)

If a tractor breaks down, a farmer will do what it takes to get it running again. Or if farm animals get sick, farmers won’t hesitate to take care of them. But when farmers have mental health problems or notice them in others, they’re not so quick to act. 

That’s something Bridget Britton wants to see change. She is an extension field specialist in behavioral health with Ohio State University Extension and she is coordinating programs to bring better mental health care to rural communities. 

“We want to reduce the stigma around mental health care,” she said. 

She and other extension educators are offering a variety of training sessions designed to help the general public recognize and respond to mental health concerns. Programs are also being offered to help mental health professionals address the unique needs of farmers. 

Offer first aid 

The Mental Health First Aid program is designed to give people the ability to spot symptoms of mental health challenges and offer support. 

“You don’t take this class to be a licensed professional,” Britton explained. “It’s similar to learning CPR. You just help until professionals can take over.” 

Mental Health First Aid is a one-time, six-hour class that is available in-person or virtually. Britton is encouraging businesses that work with farmers, farm organizations and government agencies to offer the class. Farm families could offer the class for family members and employees as well, she added. The classes are taught by extension educators and are provided at no charge. 

Ask the right questions

Another program offered to the general public is QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer). It’s a one-time suicide prevention class that lasts an hour and a half. 

Stacey Stangel, a regional family and consumer sciences educator with Central State University Extension, said the class is designed to help people recognize warning signs and give them a starting point to talk with someone who is struggling with thoughts of suicide. 

These conversations can be the first step in getting people in crisis the professional help they need. 

When people are in those crisis situations, they often don’t seek out the help they need, she explained. “They’ll accept help, but they won’t ask for help.” 

Both Central State and Ohio State University Extension are offering QPR training at no cost to participants. The class is available in person or virtually.

Talk about trauma

To help people better understand the effects of trauma and how to respond, OSU Extension is offering a two- to four-hour training session, Trauma-Informed Care. The program is offered free of charge. 

Trauma of any kind can lead to mental health issues or behavioral problems, and people cope with trauma in a variety of ways, Britton said. 

For instance, someone might appear to be lazy or a child might start getting in trouble at school. Those behaviors, however, could be related to a “fight or flight” response to trauma. Everyone experiences trauma at one time or another. 

Britton added, “We’re all dealing with a traumatic event with this pandemic.” 

Help professionals understand farm stress

When farmers do seek out mental health care, they sometimes end up consulting professionals who don’t understand farming, Britton said. For instance, she’s heard about therapists who have asked struggling farmers, “If farming is so stressful, why don’t you quit farming?” 

Those therapists may not understand why simply quitting a multi-generational family farm would cause even more stress.

“Farmers want a therapist who understands, so they don’t have to explain everything,” she said. 

Ag counseling tools 

A new initiative is designed to teach counselors and therapists about farming lifestyles and the stresses farmers experience so they are better able to help. The program consists of a series of three, three-hour classes that will cover topics that can cause farmers stress, such as the unpredictability of weather, lack of health insurance, legal issues and succession planning. 

The classes will also provide participants with continuing education credits. Funding for the initiative is being provided through a grant awarded to the Ohio Department of Agriculture from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network.

Training on mental health

To arrange a mental health training session for your group, contact Bridget Britton from the Ohio State Farm Stress Team at britton.191@osu.edu. 

For Central State University’s QPR training, contact Stacey Stangel, at sstangel@centralstate.edu.

Additional information is also available at any local extension office or on Ohio State’s farm stress webpage u.osu.edu/farmstress. 

Get help now

To get help right away with mental health concerns, contact the Ohio CareLine at 800-720- 9616. The careline is staffed by behavioral health professionals and provides confidential, free resources 24-hours a day. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 for confidential, free help for yourself or others.

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Gail Keck writes from her family farm, near Raymond, Ohio, where she manages the hog and cattle enterprises. She has extensive experience writing about Ohio agriculture and is a graduate of Ohio State University. She can be reached at editorial+gkeck@farmanddairy.com or at 937-578-8534.

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