In southeastern Ohio, the key to talking about mental health and farming has been to not talk about it. Or at least not directly.
“The problem is when you say, ‘We’re going to have a mental health meeting tomorrow at 6 p.m’ … nobody shows up because no one wants to admit they need to go to a mental health meeting and nobody knows what that means,” said Ohio Farm Bureau’s Trevor Kirkpatrick.
That’s how the Check Your Engine project got started over a year ago. To get around the stigma of talking about mental health, project founders figured out a way to put it in relatable terms.
“What do you do when your check engine light comes on,” said Kirkpatrick, an Ohio Farm Bureau organization director for Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson and Tuscarawas counties. “Some things you can address and fix yourself. Other times you might need to bring in an expert.”
The multi-county effort began as a way to teach farmers and those in the agricultural community how to check in with themselves and others. People wouldn’t come out experts in dealing with mental health issues or people in crisis, but exposing them to the information would be a start.
“We wanted to condense that into something bite-sized that they could take, run with and think about,” Kirkpatrick said. “Here are some things you can say. Here are some things not to say.”
The pilot of the Check Your Engine project worked better than expected and revealed a need for more than just awareness training. It’s grown into a slate of programs and initiatives to get farmers targeted help they need and get more mental health providers trained and working in rural areas. All they need now is funding to hit the ground running.
How it started
Natalie Bollon, executive director of Alcohol Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services of Tuscarawas and Carroll Counties, first heard about the struggles of farmers at the beginning of the pandemic. One of the directors on the ADAMHS board mentioned there had been a few suicides in the local farm community.
Bollon dug into it and found farm stress to be a nationwide issue. Farmers and people working in agriculture have one of the highest rates of suicide compared to the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She connected with the Ohio Farm Bureau, and they pulled together a team from other agencies from the counties in Kirkpatrick’s coverage area, including Jefferson County Prevention and Recovery Board and the Mental Health Recovery Board of Harrison County, as well as Ohio State University Extension.
The Check Your Engine training was developed from this group, with help from an advisory board made up of farm bureau members from the area. It was like a focus group to bounce ideas off, Bollon said.
“God love them, they were incredibly honest and incredibly helpful,” she said.
They trialed the training during the annual farm bureau meeting for those four counties and at the annual meeting for TMK Bakersville, a local agricultural services business.
After these meetings, people started reaching out to talk. Kirkpatrick said they weren’t quite ready for that type of response, but it let them know they were hitting an untapped need in the community.
What farmers needed was someone who was trained in mental and behavioral health to reach their community. What farmers wanted, according to the advisory board, was to deal with someone who knows farming, Kirkpatrick said. The solution is to create a job that does both.
The four-county group proposed creating a new position called the Farm Stress Supporter for each county. This person would work for the Ohio Farm Bureau to conduct Check Your Engine trainings, but also be available to field calls from people who want to talk, direct people to resources and stay connected with the community.
The group is applying for a grant through the Appalachian Community Grant Program to be able to create the Farm Stress Supporter position. The grant program, administered by the Ohio Department of Development, is funded with $500 million from the American Rescue Plan Act.
“It’s a unicorn,” Kirkpatrick said. “We thought this grant was our chance to get a unicorn in each county.”
Each part of the grant was built with feedback from farmers. That includes training counselors not just in farm stress but in a mode of treatment that might be more effective for a reluctant farmer with limited time.
“We don’t want this to be something the farmers are like, ‘I’ve been here for three sessions, and we haven’t learned anything. This isn’t a good use of my time,’” Bollon said. “We wanted to make sure the clinicians they are connected to are doing very targeted therapy.”
A certain number of farmers will get six paid-for counseling sessions with a counselor trained in solutions-focused brief therapy sessions and Ohio State University’s Farm Stress Certified. The grant will also cover tuition costs for social work degrees at regional universities. The hope is to entice rural residents to become behavioral health providers that are desperately needed in those areas.
“We figured the best way to get people working in rural areas was to pull from the population,” Bollon said.
The group is asking for $1.8 million to fund the program over four years, so less than half a million dollars a year for services in four counties. The grants will be awarded in early 2023.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at rachel@!farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.)
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