It's Okay to Not Be Okay. How Ohio State Extension is Normalizing Mental Health

By: Lexie Nunes

Stress is inevitable. There are bills to pay, errands to run and not enough time in the day to do it all. The effects stress can have on our physical health are well-known, but rarely do we acknowledge the impact it has on our mental health. Tending to our mental health is an issue that is often left to secrecy, but the truth of the matter is, one in four adults in the United States is diagnosed with a mental health disorder.

The Ohio State University Extension (OSUE) has recently made efforts to acknowledge this startling statistic, and they are paving the way in getting the conversation started.

A Farmer’s Mentality

It’s no secret that farming is a stressful occupation. With many uncertainties including weather and commodity prices, farmers have little control over factors that directly impact their livelihood.

In 2018 alone, 172 Ohio dairy farmers called it quits on their farms, some due to profit loss. Soybean and other crop farmers also barely held on after tariffs were enacted this year by the United States. Working at a continual loss makes it hard to stay positive.

Another factor related to farm stress is the pressure to protect a family legacy. 97 percent of all farms in the United States are family-owned and operated, being passed down from one generation to the next. If a farmer loses his crop or is forced to sell his herd, it can lead to overwhelming feelings of guilt and failure.

Concern about suicide and mental health treatment for farmers has risen in part because a report released in 2016 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that when compared to other occupations, farmers and ranchers have the highest rate of suicide.

We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and we believe that we can take care of everything ourselves but that’s not the truth

In another recent study released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, farmers and ranchers were ranked third for riskiest occupation in terms of mental health.

Talking about mental health is habitually seen as taboo amongst the farming community. This stems from the hardworking, grit attitude that farmers possess.

From a very young age, farmers and ranchers have a mindset engrained in them to shake it off and get the job done.

“In the agricultural field, we think of ourselves as strong people. And sometimes there’s a stigma associated with asking for help,” said Roger Rennekamp, associate dean and director at OSUE. “We pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and we believe that we can take care of everything ourselves but that’s not the truth.”

Rising Above the Statistics

In 2008, OSUE began its mental health first aid training, which was originally introduced by the National Council of Behavioral Health (NCBH). This training is aimed to help Ohioans recognize and respond to signs of mental health disorders.

“We are not training mental health professionals, but anyone can learn to watch for the early warning signs,” Rennekamp said.

OSUE is part of a nationwide movement to normalize mental health and conversations surrounding it. More than 1 million people in the United States have already undergone the certification training provided by the NCBH.

Currently, there are seven nationally certified educators on staff at OSUE. The long-term goal is to have at least one extension professional trained in every county, not necessarily to teach a course, but to arm each county with a person who has the conversation skills and knowledge to be able to help clientele.

The certification training includes the ALGEE method, which is a five-step model introduced by the NCBH as a response strategy for nonprofessionals. This method teaches people to assess risk of suicide or harm, listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage appropriate professional help and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

Raymond Jackson of Logan County, Ohio is one of the 2,200 dairy farmers who are facing an uncertain future in the industry which can lead to stress and depression.

OSUE offers two specialized courses to choose from: adult mental health first aid and youth mental health first aid. The adult course explains mental health disorders like depression, anxiety and self-injury. The youth course is geared to train adults working with adolescents, so in addition to the mental health disorders imparted in the adult course, the youth concentration also discusses adolescent development, said Amanda Raines, youth development educator at OSUE-Hardin County.

At this time, OSUE is working more extensively with Ohio schools to get all school staff trained and certified in youth mental health first aid. This is in response to the shocking statistic that suicide is the leading cause of death for ages 8 to 10 in Ohio, Raines said.

The Hardin County educator is no stranger to mental health first aid conversations as she spends much of her time advocating for mental health through trainings and presentations. Raines is nationally certified in mental health first aid through the NCBH and is a youth mental health first aid instructor.

In March 2018, Raines and colleague Jami Dellifield, family and consumer sciences educator at OSUE-Hardin County, gave a presentation at the Agribility National Training workshop in Portland, Maine. The presentation focused on farm stress and reducing the stigma that comes with mental health disorders.

“When it comes to mental health, we really want to stress that it’s important to take care of yourself and it is okay to talk about it. You don’t have to be ashamed,” said Raines.

The 8-hour course is open to anyone interested in becoming certified and is offered in all 88 Ohio counties. Raines suggests that “Anybody who loves another person should take the course.”

There are several public trainings held throughout the year at Ohio State University regional campuses as well as local training sessions by request.

A Hopeful Future

While we can’t eliminate all sources of stress, like fluctuating prices and inadequate weather, we can change the way that farmers view and handle stress.

The educators at OSUE are hopeful that the mental health first aid training is a stepping stone to help those dealing with stress see there is hope.

“People think of Extension as just helping farmers achieve greater yields but there are so many peripheral things, like farm stress, that affect both the farmers and their families,” said Rennekamp.

“We really feel it is our obligation to provide them with resources to get them the help they need.”

For more information or to find a course near you, visit mentalhealthfirstaid.org or call your county OSU Extension office.

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