May 2, 2023

Nebraska Extension educators boost rural mental health

Silhouette of a farmer driving a tractor with a red sky
Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing

Craig Chandler | University Communication and Marketing

Pursuing a livelihood as a farmer or rancher means dealing with stress. Difficult market conditions, weather challenges, plant and animal health concerns, workforce shortages, debt management — the sources of stress in agricultural production are many and often ongoing.

But just as it pays to tend to one’s physical wellness, the same goes for one’s emotional wellness. Left unaddressed, the wear and tear on a producer’s emotional well-being can lead to serious problems and sometimes a family or personal crisis. A recent study found that production agriculture workers rank fourth among professions in male suicides.

Nebraska Extension’s Rural Wellness program is structured to help address these needs. Extension’s Rural Wellness team is “a unique extension group that is very multifaceted and has folks from all across the state in different disciplines working together,” said Jessica Grosskopf, a Scottsbluff-based extension educator who specializes in agricultural economics. She has expertise in a suicide prevention strategy known as QPR: question, persuade, refer.

In 2019, Nebraska Extension provided emotional wellness outreach to help Nebraskans cope with the catastrophic flooding that struck the state. Now, extension is devoting particular energy to two mental well-being programs with a rural focus.

One program helps Nebraskans cope with “ambiguous loss,” involving challenges such as divorce, addictions or health conditions. The aim is for Nebraskans to achieve resilience, promote communication and use appropriate supports. In the second program, extension is using the QPR approach for rural suicide prevention.

Extension professionals also help Nebraskans more broadly to address outside factors, such as nutrition and sleep, that can affect emotional well-being, said Michelle Krehbiel, an extension youth development specialist.

All these efforts tie into one of extension’s three biggest strategic aims: supporting Nebraskans’ health and well-being.

Extension professionals are the “first line of defense” in heading off more serious problems with mental wellness, Krehbiel said. Extension educators contribute by helping Nebraskans manage their finances and make good decisions about nutrition and sleep habits, by supporting positive relationships with young people through 4-H, and by offering early childhood supports, she said.

Wayde Pickinpaugh, an extension beef systems educator in Johnson County, spoke at length about rural mental wellness issues this year during an episode of extension’s BeefWatch podcast.

“Agriculture is full of uncontrollable variables and make-or-break factors that leave a huge impact on our operations and will continue to contribute to stress,” Pickinpaugh wrote in a companion article for BeefWatch. “It’s OK to have extra drive to push through difficult times, but recognize there is a balance between being tough and knowing when to take care of ourselves. Producers aren’t able to take care of their farms and ranches and their family if they don’t take care of themselves first.”

Among Pickinpaugh’s recommendations: Find someone to talk to. Attend to your physical health. Schedule breaks. Focus on what can be controlled. Learn to recognize your stress factors and how to manage stress affecting yourself and others.

Being a good listener, Krehbiel said, is an especially effective way rural residents can help each other deal with stress: “The reality is, someone just needs somebody who says, ‘How are you doing?’” In many cases, she said, “that’s just enough steam out of the pressure cooker to help you.” And if the person needs higher-level care, extension helps that individual connect with medical professionals.

Extension’s QPR suicide prevention program trains Nebraskans — extension professionals, as well as the general public — to use key techniques: Recognize the warning signs of suicide. Know how to offer hope. Know how to get help.

Extension’s QPR initiative, Grosskopf said, is “training our communities to see signs of concern and then follow those three steps — question, persuade and refer — to help get them to those professionals who can take them through their journey the rest of the way.”

A new national suicide prevention helpline is available by calling or texting 988. In Nebraska, the Rural Response Hotline also provides suicide prevention help at 800-464-0258.

“Extension belongs in this prevention space where we can give people tools to ward off severe episodes,” Krehbiel said. In all these ways, she said, extension pursues a central aim: “Give people the tools that can help them prevent those bigger issues.”