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Finding hope and help for mental health in rural America

Heather Moore for Progressive Dairy Published on 17 July 2019

“My husband came in at lunch and told me the statistics on farmer suicide. He told me how hopeless he felt. I was scared to let him go back to the field.” 

“I am always so angry. I yell at the kids and throw things in the milkhouse. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” 

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 “He asked for help. The nurses laughed at him. He cried and asked if I thought he was crazy.” 

“I must’ve made 15 phone calls today. No one could help. The only person who answered the phone said it would be five weeks for an appointment.” 

“The doctor told him to have a beer and relax. He told me he’s had to get drunk three nights this week just to make it through chores.” 

“It’s been days, and she just lays in bed. I don’t know what to do.” 

These scenarios are playing out every day in rural America. For every story I’ve listed here, which have all been relayed to me as I’ve started with my informal research into farm family mental health for this column, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stories that aren’t being shared. We preach and preach to ask for help if you’re struggling with mental health. We repeat about reaching out on behalf of your family and friends. But what happens when no one will listen? Or there’s no help available? 

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1. Visit your primary physician 

One of the farmers I talked to started her journey to mental health treatment during her yearly physical. She told me she felt uncomfortable speaking up at first, but her doctor was able to prescribe an as-needed medication that worked for her. If you don’t have a primary physician, your clinic of choice should be able to get you started with one. Insurance companies typically cover a physical each year. If you are in need of immediate help, go to urgent care or the emergency room. Oftentimes, they will be able to expedite the process of finding you a primary care physician. 

2. Advocate for yourself and those you love

One young farmer I talked to reached out to three different medical professionals and had a total of a dozen visits before he was finally started on a medication to help with his panic attacks. Another farm wife shared that she took her husband to their baby’s well-child visit and convinced him to go to urgent care, where she told the nurses she wasn’t leaving until someone listened to him. Not all mental health care is created equal, and it may take time to break through stereotypes and find care that will work for you or your loved one. But don’t give up. 

3. Share your story

Sharing your mental health challenges may seem scary and intimidating, but can lead to answers. A farmer shared with me that he had been to the ER several times with chest pains that left his doctors stumped until his wife talked to a co-worker, and they realized he had been having panic attacks. He was able to take that new information to a new doctor and was put on an anti-anxiety prescription, after which his pains stopped completely. 

4. Find a doctor that works for you 

The farmer who visited three different doctors started with his local rural clinic, which wasn’t prepared to address mental health issues. He then visited a clinic in a nearby city, where he started to receive treatment, but decided it wasn’t quite right for him. On his third try, he chose another rural clinic where he felt comfortable with the staff and was able to start treatment better suited to his specific situation. 

5. Don’t take bad advice

One farmer shared that he had been advised to “drink a beer and relax.” Just like with a broken leg, drinking a beer and relaxing might make it feel better in the short term, but doesn’t address the long-term situation. Don’t let bad advice or platitudes like “Just toughen up!” discourage you from seeking help. Mental health is just as important as physical health. Even if these words come from a medical professional, recognize that not every professional is well-versed and up-to-date with mental health training. Alcohol or other recreational drugs are not healthy coping mechanisms and can and will exacerbate mental health issues. 

6. Consider talk therapy

Don’t be fooled by Hollywood stereotypes of shrinks or therapists. After a traumatic pregnancy loss, my obstetrician recommended talk therapy. Weekly to monthly conversations with my therapist helped me to develop coping strategies to deal with a lifetime of anxiety issues that I still have in place today. Again, it may take trial and error to find a good therapist, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t mesh initially. In my case, my therapist was even able to design strategies that I could use every day in the barn to deal with my anxiety. Even without a referral, you should be able to locate a talk therapy provider in your area.

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7. Don’t give up 

The farmer’s wife who called 15 different agencies and wasn’t able to make an appointment for five weeks eventually connected with a farmer who had been in a similar situation some years before and was able to share his coping mechanisms. She reported that just being able to talk to someone who had “been there,” was enough to help her farmer out of crisis. 

8. Take care of yourself

You can’t pour from an empty cup. Whether you are struggling with your mental health or you’re assisting a loved one in their struggle, it’s imperative that you take care of yourself. You can’t take care of your farm, your animals, your family unless you are fully functioning. Seek help and be persistent.  end mark  

Heather Moore is a dairy farming mama herself, raising three little boys with her husband, Brandon. The Moore family has a 60-cow dairy and custom feeds 800 head of beef cattle near Maquoketa, Iowa. When she is not chasing around cows and kids, you'll find her scooping ice cream and selling cheese in her store, volunteering, cooking and very occasionally, sleeping.

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