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Unique agricultural stresses require unique attention

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The May 28 National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s Beltway Beef podcast featured mental health in rural communities. Ted Matthews, a clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience in rural mental health, joined the podcast to address the unique challenges of stress within agricultural settings.  

Matthews states, “Farmers are a unique group. One of the problems I’ve seen with a lot of therapists is they assume they understand how to work with this group of people. You need to understand farmers in order to work with farmers.”  

He explains farmers and ranchers have a unique occupation with many internal stressors, which Matthews notes many other occupations don’t share.  

“There isn’t ever a time in farming where they don’t feel stressed,” he notes. “It’s a matter of what they do with it.”  

Rural stigmas 

 “For a long time, there has been a stigma in rural health and taking care of your mental health in rural communities,” mentions Beltway Beef Host Ashley McDonald. This stigma, she notes, begs the question, why is it an issue and why can it be hard to talk about? 

“Farming is a somewhat isolated occupation,” states Matthews. Given the conditions of the work, Matthews poses the question, “Who knows about your stresses? Maybe your family and yourself.” 

 “Even if we go to church, we don’t talk about this,” says Matthews. “When farmers get together, they are all talking about the same things, but they are not really talking about their feelings. They are talking about the concepts, and there is not much to compare feelings to.”  

Producers have certainly been through more than fair share of stress, especially recently. McDonald shares, “With so many stressors this last year from COVID-19 to market prices, there were many things happening at once in the ag world.”  

Now more than ever, it is important to identify the different stressors.  

Determining the stressor 

To help improve mental health, the first step is identifying stress. Matthews mentions stress could be showing itself when people have slight personality changes.  

Matthews explains, “ Stress has started to take its toll when they don’t usually get angry, but now are getting angry all the time or they communicate in small ways at the dinner table and now are avoiding the kitchen table altogether.”   

Stress can start to manifest itself in several small ways, Matthews states. Over time, the stressors build and reach a point of discomfort. Looking at the concept of stress and how individuals deal with it is extremely complex.  

Matthews poses the question, “If stress, anxiety and depression were simple things to understand and work on, why are there 100,000 books written on it? Human emotion, to me, is the most complex thing in the universe.”  

In addition, Matthews shares producers are constantly told how to feel, which can add to both the stress and the stigma surrounding stress. 

“A producer might say, ‘I am really depressed because the prices are low,’ and another might say, ‘Well they will get better, that stuff always happens,’” Matthews explains. He shares, “Maybe to me it is a big deal, and maybe it is the last straw for me.” 

Dealing with the stress  

For many, there are countless accumulating factors of stress, anxiety or depression, making it difficult to understand the true reasons. However, starting to talk about specific feelings could greatly improve mental health. 

It’s important to understand the varying ways individuals deal with stress. Matthew clarifies, “In general, the more men feel stressed, the less they want to talk about it, while women tend to talk about it.”  

Outside of the farm, it may be easier to talk about issues and concerns, because two people can set up a time to meet. Matthews gives the example, “In farming, if I am really stressed, and my wife wants to talk about it, I might think ‘Why is she bugging me? I don’t have time to talk about this,’ while she is thinking, ‘Why won’t he talk to me? Why won’t he share what is going on with me?’” 

 Conflict can arise simply because of the sometimes-contradicting methods of handling stress.  

Leaning on each other, especially the people in our closest circle, can help break apart the feelings. The one major thing stressed individuals can do to help alleviate stress is communicate with their partners, families and friends.  

Ted encourages people to just start talking about anything. He shares, “If I can talk to you about one thing, then I can talk to you about two things, then 10 things and then maybe 20 things. Finding ways to communicate becomes incredibly important.”  

Helping a loved one 

Throughout the podcast, it is mentioned how farming is such a unique business which undoubtedly leads itself to unique stressors. Matthews notes, “When we see loved ones who are stressed and we don’t know what to do, we do nothing.” 

Though Matthews encourages action. 

 “The first step is always the hardest,” he shares, noting the topic can be difficult to bring up, but is best kept simple.  

Resources Matthews provides as resources include hotlines and feedback from professionals including ministers, clergy, farm advocates, farm mediators and social service individuals.  

“It is something we need to talk about more and encourage people to talk about,” McDonald says. “There is no shame in needing to talk about those things, because farming is stressful. There are a lot of things that I don’t think people are meant to deal with on their own.” 

Matthews concludes by stating, “Not everybody needs a psychologist, but there is nobody alive who doesn’t need some encouragement.”  

If you or a loved one needs someone to talk with, Matthews encourages anyone to reach out to him at 320-266-2390. 

Chaney Peterson is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to  

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