Ted Matthews is the director of MN Rural Mental Health and is based out of Hutchinson, Minnesota. Ted is a mental health practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in counseling in rural areas. His focus for the past two decades has been farmer mental health support. He has been the director of mental health services during five natural disasters. Matthews provides outreach training and public speaking related to farm stressors, nationwide. He also has extensive counseling experience in the areas of PTSD, crisis intervention, family issues, suicidology and domestic abuse. Featured on the Huffington Post, MPRNews, CNN, AgriNews, Successful Farming, Prairie Farmer and many others, Ted offers his expertise to help the general public better understand farming culture.
Aug 19, 2019
The high rate of suicide among the farming community is alarming, but it is not entirely tied to the plummeting commodity prices as most believe. There is no question that low prices for milk, soybeans and corn have increased farmer stress throughout the country. What few understand are a number of other factors associated with the increased stress farmers face today. By putting our energy into what we change, instead of being overwhelmed by what we have no control over, we can reduce our stress. Generalized stress year-round First, you need to get your books in order to apply for your operating loan. You hope you have everything in order, that interest rates are low, that your equity in the farm will be able to cover the loan, and in some cases, that your spouse will sign the note. Secondly, after you have secured the loan, you buy what you will need to operate. Then it is time to plant, weather permitting. Once you get the seed in the ground, the anxiety over the need for rain and warmth for the seed to take sets in. After getting through the planting season, there is little respite from worry and planning. Pests, diseases, natural disasters and weather are all potential threats to the crop, but if you can skirt past those issues then it is time to think about harvesting. At harvest time, it is a race against the weather again, and you do what you can to keep your equipment in good working order, but break-downs every now and then are inevitable. You hope they happen when there is a buffer of time to deal with it, but that rarely happens. After the harvest it is time to come full-circle once again and take a good hard look at the books, so you can begin the dance with the lender all over again. Dairy farms have an even harder time if you can believe it! The sinking milk prices mean that many farmers are getting paid less than what it costs to operate. That is why we are seeing so many dairy farms go under this year. These farmers often start their days before the sun comes up and this work schedule is year-round. There is no vacation time for dairy farmers and no days off. This is a small glimpse into what farmers go through throughout the year By putting our energy into what we change, instead of being overwhelmed by what we have no control over, we can reduce our stress. Farming has always been a very stressful occupation, with so many possible negative outcomes, and everyone handles stress in different ways. Some people seem to shoulder a great deal of stress while others are unable to do the same. Getting angry with ourselves for not being able to handle all of our stress is not only not going to hep but will be counter productive. A lot as been talked and written about farmer suicide. Several of the above mentioned stressors have been attributed to farmers taking their own lives; however, there are more issues around farm stress to look at: Communication on the Farm This is more and more important as the role of women on the farm has changed. Women often times do the books, and work off-farm to help supplement the farm. So there are far more things to talk about and far less time to talk. As men feel stress they tend to pull back further and further, and talk less and less. My dealings with many women in agriculture shows their number one issue on the farm is lack of communication. Men, on the other hand, when stressed, tend to communicate less. Multigenerational Farm Transition It is a myth that fathers would hand over their farms to their child (or children) because they wanted to retire. Farmers turn over their farm when they are physically unable to farm any longer. This has created a great deal of stress because in the past several thousand years our bodies wore out in their 40s or early 50s. Thanks to technology and medical advancements, farmers often times can and do farm well into their 80s. This creates a middle generation that will probably never take over the farm, and it will be their children that the farm is passed onto. Chores for Our Children For generations, children have been a viable workforce on the farm. In this day and age, we fewer and fewer children doing chores for a variety of reasons. We must all remember that work ethic does not come from philosophy, it comes from work. Our children doing chores on the farm, is in my opinion, not only often times necessary, but crucial on a family farm. How farmers got to know their mother and father was by doing farm chores alongside them. For generations, farm families had a stronger bond due to their constant relationship in all aspects of their lives. I think it is a wonderful thing for families to work together as that helps to creates what many farm families want and value most - a strong family bond. What can we do about the stress on the farm? Although it is impossible to prevent stress, there are things we can do to lower it. The focus needs to be on the family bond and the team approach to our future as farmers. I recommend to all couples that I work with that they spend a minimum of 15 minutes every day to talk about their common daily occurrences. Before you think about how easy that would be, try it for seven days. Most of you will see it is more difficult than you thought. The simple reasons for that is that two heads are better than one and bonding comes with communication. I will conclude this article by saying we must remember to When we think of being nice, we need to first look in the mirror. By being kind to ourselves, we have a greater capacity to be kind to others. www.farmcounseling.org
Mar 12, 2019
I honestly don’t think you can call a farmer anything worse than “lazy.” If I am already working too much, too many hours, too hard, and I’m too tired, and then I think of myself as lazy for not getting something done, then I may push myself even harder. That’s when the odds improve greatly for a farm accident. I believe that one of the top reasons that farm accidents can occur stems from the concept of laziness. If you’re doing the best you can, you aren’t lazy. Sometimes, we feel like we are “being lazy,” but what is actually happening is that we do not have enough energy to get all of our many daily tasks and chores accomplished. When we have more to do, we often end up getting less done because the overwhelming feeling makes us slow down and we become anxious and stuck in our thoughts. It’s true, and important to note that not having enough energy could be a symptom of a different health issue, such as depression. But that is not always the case, and not having enough energy can also simply be that you are trying to get an unrealistic amount of tasks, chores or work done in a day. It could be too much for any human to accomplish! We typically react to the concept of laziness in one of two ways: 1. We push ourselves harder. 2. We get angry. Sometimes, both. What we need to do instead is to focus on ourselves, making healthy choices and habits, and how to safely prioritize our day. When we focus on ourselves, we have to replace the word “lazy” with another simple word: . If you are someone who has been called lazy. If I know that I am working hard, I don’t need someone else to decide that for me. If I know that I am working hard enough, I can try harder and re-prioritize… but this should be a decision based on my own self-assessment, not a decision made to please others. This is called ! A motivation would be asking yourself, “How can we get this job done sooner?” If someone else is calling you lazy outright, this sounds like , not a motivation. A manipulation would sound like someone telling you, “You’re, lazy—get that job done!” If you are someone who calls others lazy, your motivations may actually be manipulation: 1. To get them to work harder 2. To call them a name to incite conflict What happens when you take this approach? 1. If this does what you want, then using this word came at a price because it was manipulative and likely hurt the person. 2. If their reaction was negative, why do it again? Hurt and anger never solves any problems, so calling someone lazy may seem to get the job done, but the price of damaging your relationship and the risk of accident or injury is too high. How can you do it differently? Look in the mirror, call yourself —what emotions does that inspire? Instead, ask yourself, “What is the most efficient way to actually get the job done,” or “How can I encourage this person and help to motivate them to get the job done?” I have yet to see calling someone lazy to be the most helpful or efficient way. Procrastination isn’t the same as laziness. Sometimes we mistakenly identify procrastination with laziness. If it’s my turn to clean out the manure pit, but it’s a job I really do not like, then I will probably procrastinate and do it only when I absolutely have to. Does that mean I am lazy? No! It means I just don’t like that job, and I will wait as long as I can to do it. It is a natural feeling… but I do have to get the job done eventually. And not getting the job done in a timely manner could also create the risk of a farm accident, injury, or put the farm at an operational risk for missing an opportunity. For your mental health, and the health of the farm, always remember that on the farm is a four-letter word. www.farmcounseling.org
Mar 08, 2019
Winter comes every year, and some years are better (milder) than others. In order to live in the Midwest, we must be blessed with short-term memory, because when spring comes, we tend to forget about why we wish we lived further south. Well, one month turns into three… and then four… and then five. We tell ourselves that, “it’s just winter,” and we can deal with it because, “What choice do we have?” The fact is however, that many of us feel depression during the cold winter months simply because there is a lack of sunshine. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the season, typically from fall and winter to spring, and can be brought on by being indoors and not getting enough sunshine. We may know spring will come eventually, but our emotions scream out, “WHEN!?” Taking care of ourselves means looking at and valuing the little things that we can do to help get through the (sometimes long) winters. Sometimes we skip over feeling better because we don’t think it’s enough to think about what’s ahead. We tell ourselves that spring won’t come any faster if we go to a movie or have friends over. But it will help us through the day and help us to look forward to something next week, which puts us in a healthier survival mode.. As humans, our moods swing whether we like it or not. Allowing ourselves to identify our feelings is healthy and productive. Blowing it off by saying, “There is nothing I can do about winter,” sets us up to do nothing and stay in the same place. Take the time to understand how you’re feeling so that you can then share that with loved ones who are able to relate. Talking about how we’re feeling is important. . Going to my grandson’s basketball game recently made me focus on the game and watching him play. For that time, the weather was not on my mind. The team lost, and I felt bad for my grandson, but that’s another story. In other words, be honest with yourself and say, “I am over this weather, but I can do something!” Getting through the cold and sometimes dark winter months is all about thinking positively and finding activities that improve your attitude!
Jan 25, 2019
Much has been written about the high rate of suicide among farmers . People ask me about numbers, how many, how often and by what means. Although I do work with families that go through the pain of a loved one taking their life, I would rather focus on a pro-active approach. There are ways we can lower farm stress, and there are things that we can proactively look for - things that may be creating a severe sense of helplessness. When I get a call from a loved one concerned about a family member talking of hurting themselves, I am usually told that the conflicted person does not want to call, and I am asked what they can do. I believe, the best option is to talk to them directly. I recommend they ask their loved one to call me for their sake. For instance, a daughter asks her father to call for her sake, so she can feel better. This often times is helpful. If the person still refuses to call and you feel the threat is imminent, I would recommend involving others such as family members, clergy, friends or even law enforcement. Some of you reading this may think it is a bit extreme, but my answer to that is always err on the side of safety. If you are wrong, and that person will not hurt themselves, you have not wasted much, only a little time. If you are right, well that goes without saying. To do nothing at all is the worst option. Making life better sounds simple, but it takes diligence and determination. Having the support of friends and family can make all the difference. In my experience, that can be done by improving communication and changing our perspective. Again, it may sound simple, but it takes quite a bit of effort to change stuck patterns and to become an effective communicator. Identifying the Issue: Communication Let me start with communication, or the lack there of. When men feel stressed they tend to talk less. When things get overwhelming, men pull back; yet, women tend to want to talk more. What often times happens is women get frustrated and give up trying to talk to their spouse. The lack of wanting to communicate coupled with the isolation on the farm can lead men to sink further and further without anyone noticing. Understanding that men and women have different strategies for communication and working with that is paramount. Men must also understand that opening up is not a sign of weakness - it is a sign of immense strength. To overcome decades of conditioning that discourages men from being vulnerable, which is a basic human need, takes great strength indeed. Men and women are both emotional beings and sharing vulnerable feelings is healthy. Changing Our Perspective to Live in a Better Reality Humans have this habit of needing to label life as good or bad without considering all of the in-between. We have a tendency to focus on the bad (what we can not change), instead of using our energy in a more productive way (looking at the good, which in most cases is greater than the bad). In my practice, I like to say, Looking at things that have no solution does not mean it can't be better. If things go even 5% in the right direction, that is significant to your wellbeing! There is no good reason to not try to improve life, even if the gains are only 5%. If you continue to look at each issue as a little better, it helps a lot. Life is not based on all or nothing, many times in life our decisions are difficult with no good solutions. So when you pick the best option out of the options you have, it does not mean great or even good, it’s just the best you can do. Remember, if you don’t make the decision, someone else will make it for you. Now what are you going to do about it? It is human nature to blame others or even things to try and make us feel better. What if you genuinely , Ted, for all that has happened, and I mean truly blamed me. With that over with, we now can focus on what can be done. Who’s fault something is, is in the past, the problem is now, and perhaps in the future. Nothing can be done with yesterday, but something can be done with tomorrow. If you could increase your yields by 10 percent, you would without question. Why not apply that to your own wellbeing? Self-care tends to be taboo in rural communities, but if you look at it as increasing your productivity, it starts to make sense. Self-care is not a luxury, it is good management for optimal yield. We especially see this lack of good self management when it comes to harvest and sleep deprivation. If I am a person that needs 8 hours of sleep and I only get 5 hours for an extended period of time, the odds of an accident are greatly enhanced. Why do we knowingly put ourselves in harm's way? Fear of a four letter word - . The easiest way to monitor that is to look at your pattern. Do not judge yourself in a negative way simply because you need more rest. We all have different bodies, physiology and needs - there is no shame in that. Changing a bad situation may take time, but you can instantly improve it by remaining diligent about what thoughts you allow to dominate your mind each day, and by opening up to your family, which will improve your relationships. I wish you well. www.farmcounseling.org