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MSU Extension: Managing Farm Stress

Russ White
Suzanne Pish, Jeff Dwyer

Money and mental health, those topics are off limits in polite conversation. There's almost a taboo about asking someone about either subject, but that's exactly what we're going to talk about today.
The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Sadly, they had seen an uptick in the number of farmers who took their own lives. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 90 out of every 100,000 farmers complete suicide. That is six times higher than the national rate for nonfarm related occupations. 

Jeff Dwyer:Money and mental health, those topics are off limits in polite conversation. There's almost a taboo about asking someone about either subject, but that's exactly what we're going to talk about today. I'm Jeff Dwyer, director of Michigan State University Extension, and you're listening to Partnerships and Peninsulas.

In the summer of 2016, I received a personal message from our friends at the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Sadly, they had seen an uptick in the number of farmers who took their own lives. That same year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 90 out of every 100,000 farmers complete suicide. That is six times higher than the national rate for nonfarm related occupations. Suzanne Pish is an MSU Extension educator who focuses on social and emotional health. She's also a farmer. When this issue came up, we immediately turned to her for guidance. Suzanne, thanks for joining me today.

Suzanne Pish:Thanks for having me.

Dwyer:So, give us an example of how this is impacting the farm community and how you're programming has impacted people.

Pish:Farming has always been, like the CDC study says, a stressful occupation. However, here in the last few years we've noticed a decline in commodity prices, but there tends to be a cycle. People who remember the '80s, right? And now we're going back through that. So there is a cycle. It's a stressful occupation in the fact that we have to rely on the weather. We have to rely on diseases for our field crops and for our animals, things like that.

Dwyer:So in your programming, could you maybe tell me about someone who you've engaged with that this program became very important for them? 

Pish:So when we sat down and we decided, "We gotta do something with this." We decided that the very first thing we would do is use mental health first aid. We wanted to get our agricultural educators and our social emotional educators together and to do that program. Mental health first aid, what it is, is it's kind of like first aid that you take or CPR that you take to save somebody's life. It gives you those tools. It gives you those things that you can look for figure out what you can do, what you can say to somebody. So it's for the lay person, kind of like CPR.

Dwyer:And it's a full eight hour program and covers a broad range of topics. 

Pish:Yeah. And we knew that was important. And then from there, we had a stakeholder who said, "That is an awesome program. However, we'd like something that maybe tells the agricultural story a little bit more." So from there we developed a couple programs revolving around agriculture that we can, one, do for the farmers and their families. And two, do for people who work within the agricultural community. 

Dwyer:So, it's not often that we get that kind of immediate feedback, but that story I think certainly underscores both the importance and the immediacy of the problem. For those who aren't as familiar with agriculture or don't know anyone who works directly in farming, could you talk a little bit about the factors that are making this a particularly difficult time in an industry that is so critical to the state of Michigan? 

Pish:So it’s especially in dairy farming, which I think Michigan ranks fourth or fifth in milk production in the US. It's a pretty good industry here in Michigan. Commodity prices are low. And what that means for someone who's not in dairy farming is, we get paid by the hundred weight. So, not by the gallons or by the pounds, but by the hundred. To break even on the farm, you have to make $17.50 a hundred. Right now prices are fluctuating right around the $14, $15 mark. That means that every month they're losing money. You know, some farmers can do other things. Some wives work off the farm. I mean there are a lot of ways that you can make that work until the commodity prices turn around. But in some cases it's very detrimental to their livelihood.

Dwyer:Thinking back now almost a couple of years. When you and I and a couple of other people sat in a room and said, "This is something we need to tackle, and we need to tackle now." I recall one of the things you said at that time is you're certainly providing  stress and mental health related programming directly to farm families and farmers. But we've also been providing that programming to those who work in various commodity groups, who work in the industry more generally. I think the reminder that I think of often, as we have continued to think about how to best share this information is, you saying that your dad, who is a dairy farmer, my recollection is about couple hundred cows. Your comment was, "If we want to impact the person who talks to my dad every day, it's the milk hauler."

And I think that's such an interesting way to think about this issue because, and I'll ask you to talk about this a little bit, because so much of the information that we're trying to share through mental health first aid, or through specifically targeted farm stress programming that's been developed, is for people to understand that if they see something or sense something, they need to say something. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Pish:Right. And that's interesting that you say that, but the suicide prevention tagline is, "Be the Difference." That's exactly the awkward conversation, asking somebody. But referencing my dad who is still a dairy farmer, who still milks seven days a week. The one thing that we need, all of us need, is social interaction. And if you think about a dairy farmer, even a crop farmer, they're quite isolated, right? So, the dairy farmers in the milking parlor, and most times there's not another person, cows, maybe a dog, but there are not people. Then the other, if you're driving a tractor. And again, it's kind of isolated. We need that social interaction. So if you think about their social interaction, it is the people who come to the farm.

So, the milk hauler who comes every day. The vet who comes, the people who come to sell the parts. Or you go to the parts store, they have the stools and you see the farmers sitting there chatting, because that's where they get their social interaction. And so, that's exactly who we like to talk to about. If they're, number one, not coming to things. If their normal routine, they're not coming to the breakfast at McDonald's every morning, or whatever their normal routine is. And you start to notice they're not coming anymore. Ask. Is there something going on? Just be that difference. Be the friend. Ask, "How are you doing? What's going on?" And just be that person who cares, that can make a huge difference.

Dwyer:It surely can. So, maybe talk a little bit more about, in the various programming that we do in this area, what are some of the other key points that you try very hard to communicate to audiences that are participating in these programs? 

Pish:When I program, I always want to leave people with the number one thing I hope that they take away: don't leave a distressed person alone. So if you just had that gut feeling, you're with somebody, you just notice, man. They’re just not acting like themselves, or you just can tell. You can ask the question, "Have you ever thought about hurting or killing yourself or others?" If they answer yes, "Do you have a plan?" Then at that point you need to get a friend, family member or call 911. But that's the thing that I want everyone to know, just do not leave that person alone. If you need to call their friend, their family member, whoever it is, get somebody there to help them. 

Dwyer:You talked about commodity prices. Something else that's come up in the context of the programming that you do is multiple generation families figuring out how to deal with succession over generations. Sometimes from a financial point of view, sometimes the next generation isn't interested. Could you talk a little bit about your experience in that regard? I know you've worked with a couple of families in particular that we just found this a very stressful, difficult thing to work through. 

Pish:We had a family who actually came to a program that was meant for agricultural professionals, but they just wanted information. From there, I got kind of an SOS email saying we just need help. The family communication was just not working. It's partly, you have the older generation who's having a hard time letting go of the day-to-day management. You have the younger generation who wants to take part in it. But we do have people here who can help with that, and that's in our farm management teams. So, we do have people who can go out and set the guidelines and help people to go through those tough conversations that they have to have. 

Dwyer:Right. Very difficult. So, in Extension, you work with a number of colleagues who do a great deal of really outstanding work in health related areas. Could you just talk about for our listeners some of the other health related programs that are available through Extension? 

Pish:Yeah, and that's another great success story I feel that I have helped because I can't be everywhere in the state of Michigan. I've helped to get my colleagues, who are social emotional educators, to do the programs around the farm stress. And one colleague up in the center of Michigan went to a workshop, and from there a dairy farmer called her. Now she's going to the farm and doing a stress management with everyone, the employee's family, everybody.

And it's going great. Some of the other things that we do, we have a program called Relax, Alternatives to Anger. We all get upset and have stress in our lives. And so, that program helps you with those things and some alternatives to that.

And then the other one that's very popular is our Stress Less with Mindfulness. Mindfulness is one of those words that you hear a lot right now. That program goes over five different mindful techniques. We help you to go through those and find the one that works for you. It's a great way to help with your stress. And what works for you might not work for me. And so we just want to give people those alternatives.

Dwyer:And just so our audience is aware, we also provide health related programming in areas like diabetes and chronic pain. And those are community based programs that we know are efficacious and that have a huge impact on the people who participate. And frankly, sometimes the more physically focused health related issues cause stress of other kinds of things. Right?

Pish:Yeah, exactly.

Dwyer:I think that the ability to provide a broad range of programming becomes very helpful. Our listeners can go to msue.msu.edu and in the search box put mental health or stress or health, and they can find all of these programs. Within our own organization, we're all busy, like anybody these days. And we work in agriculture, we work in children and youth. We work in community resource development, and of course we work in health. I think one of the really great things about this particular effort, and what you've accomplished here is that, it was you and our agriculture colleagues who didn't really know anything about the mental health program. But they had the relationships to open the door to that audience, who really didn't think about us as being healthcare providers in any way.

Could you just talk a little bit about that and about the importance of our having 700 people in so many different areas around the state. And how if a particular individual doesn't have the expertise needed, they've got 700 plus other colleagues that they can call upon.

Pish:I mean you could call any Extension office in the state of Michigan, and if you want a particular program or you're interested, they could find somebody for you within the area. But in our specific area of farm stress, it was interesting because my agricultural colleague and I, we knew of each other, but not really knew what each other did. And now we've worked together a lot. 

Dwyer:You've spent a lot of road time together.

Pish:We've spent a lot of road time together. I think we both, now, have a great understanding about what each other does and what we do within the context of Extension. But yeah, when I do a program, I try to tell people the Extension story. Most people know us by 4H, of course. 4H is great, my kids are in 4H. But we also have a lot of other stuff. Nutrition and agriculture and of course the health things that I'm involved in.

Dwyer:I'm Jeff Dwyer, and I have the privilege of being the Director of Michigan State University Extension. You've been listening to Partnerships and Peninsulas. Today, focusing on the mental health programming that we provide at MSU Extension. And specifically managing farms stress, with Suzanne Pish, an MSU Extension educator. Thank you very much for sharing with us today.

Pish:Thanks for inviting me in.

MSU Today airs Sunday afternoons at 4:00 on 105.1 FM and AM 870.

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