Pa. mental health roundtable brings together agriculture and healthcare

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State and local officials met at Penn State Beaver Feb. 6 for a roundtable on mental health. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

MONACA, Pa. — Farmers deal with a unique type of stress. It can be hard to deal with and harder to talk about with others.

“If [the farm] made it for six generations and made it through depressions and floods and hurricanes and droughts, and it’s going down on your watch, that’s very tough to take for a lot of people,” said state Sen. Elder Vogel, of New Sewickley.

People from all corners of agriculture and healthcare gathered Feb. 6, at Penn State Beaver campus, to talk about the mental health needs of farmers and how best to connect them to services and resources that can help.

The roundtable discussion was organized and led by Vogel, who is chair of the senate agriculture and rural affairs committee, and Russell Redding, Pennsylvania’s secretary of agriculture. The group didn’t solve all the problems, but it got the right people in the room to start the long overdue conversation.

“The more services, the more people we can get involved to look for these signs and tell them it’s not your fault, it’s not the end of the world,” Vogel said. “We quit milking cows in 2016 when my dad died. And I thought it was the end of the world. But the sun came up the next day, and the sun’s come up every day since.”

The roundtable was part of Gov. Tom Wolf’s “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” initiative, a multi-agency campaign launched in January to expand resources and support for mental health in the state.

Under pressure

One of the biggest issues is combating the stigma of seeking help in the first place. Then comes finding the best way to connect farmers with services. Not every path will work for every person.

An appointment off farm during the day may be hard to keep, some people mentioned. As telemedicine becomes more advanced, that may be an avenue to help. People could meet with healthcare professionals virtually if leaving the farm is too difficult.

Senate Bill 857, a telemedicine bill introduced by Vogel, passed the state senate in October and moved on to the state house. It would establish guidelines for who can provide telemedicine services and give clarity for insurance company reimbursements for those services.

But that may not work for everyone, said Cynthia Pollich, with Penn State Extension. Some people may benefit more from being in a room with someone, whether that be formally at a therapist’s office or informally at an extension office or even the local feed store.

“That human connection, seeing someone across from you who is nodding their head and understands you, is important,” she said.

Come together

Clifford Wallace, of Beaver-Lawrence Farm Bureau, suggested doing things that involve couples, as men may be more apt to engage if their spouse is there, or combined with other classes or meetings.

“If you want to get every farmer in our county, you do something at the pesticide update workshop because they all go, because they have to,” he said.

Others may benefit from informal gatherings, not structured meetings. Jess Peters, a dairy farmer from Crawford County, proposed meeting for a meal without an agenda or a speaker, just to socialize. She knows of a group in her town that meets at a church.

“Every once in a while one of these meetings will come along and I’ll go and just talking to other people, I leave there feeling like a million dollars,” Peters said. “And sometimes that’s enough of a stress release for a week or two weeks … I milk every single day, and some days, all I see are my family and my cows.”

Peters said it can be hard for farmers to jump right from the farm to seeking help from a doctor or therapist. So maybe these meetings within the farming community can serve as a stepping stone to getting there.

Jim Martin said the power of peer to peer support can’t be underestimated. Martin is director of treatment services at Community Services Group, an agency, based in Lancaster County, that provides mental health and intellectual and developmental disability services.

Martin said they can open their doors and advertise their services, but that still won’t make people come. Talking to friends, neighbors and other farmers about struggles can normalize it, take away the stigma and encourage people to seek care.

It ain’t easy

Some of the challenges facing farmers is knowing what services are available to them in rural areas and then knowing and weighing the costs of those services.

For some farmers who are already struggling to meet farm expenses, paying for weekly therapy sessions is not likely to happen. Additionally, many farmers are self-employed, and only carry the bare bones insurance coverage.

Another issue is that mental health professionals don’t always understand the unique stresses and situations that come with farming. It can make it hard for farmers to connect with their care provider.

Frank Hartley, a dairy farmer from Lycoming County, gave an example where other people could switch industries and jobs if the stress of the job became too much. It’s not that easy with farming.

“A sixth generation dairy farmer can’t do that,” he said. “And that makes it a lot more of a challenge when you’re working with people in agriculture. It’s more than just a job. It’s our life. It’s a lifestyle.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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