LANCASTER, Wis. – In an effort to connect rural communities with the resources they may need to thrive emotionally, Southwestern Wisconsin Community Action Program and Farm Well Wisconsin adopted a training for neighbors to help neighbors.
“We offer this training to help people learn how to support each other better, so that we can create thriving rural communities where everybody has the support that they need to live fulfilling lives,” Chris Frakes said.
Frakes joined Shawn Monson, both of Farm Well, to deliver the training called Changing Our Mental and Emotional Trajectory during a virtual event Dec. 7 at the Lancaster Public Library. The idea is to train people in rural communities to be able to have a conversation with someone who appears to be struggling with stress. The training was developed by the High Plains Research Network.
In Wisconsin, rural communities face significant shortages of both primary care and behavioral health care providers, said Frakes.
High Plains Research Network statistics show that in 2018, people in southwestern Wisconsin reported an average of more than four poor mental health days each month. The number rose in the last two years with the presence of the coronavirus pandemic. In a 2021 survey, 66% of farmers and farmworkers said the pandemic has impacted their mental health. This information was used to develop a series of questions and guidelines for people to use, which developed into the COMET training.
“COMET believes in the power of everyday interactions,” Monson said. “COMET also believes that family members, teachers, coworkers and acquaintances can have a powerful influence on a person’s wellness trajectory.”
The program’s questions and guidelines are meant to support community interaction by strengthening the fabric that binds people in a community. This is done with a series of very simple questions to let fellow community members know someone is listening to them.
Monson said everyone is subject to moving along a natural trajectory from wellness, to a vulnerable space, to crisis. The purpose of the questions is to catch someone before they get to the crisis stage and help them rebound to wellness.
“The important thing to remember at this point in the process is that it’s acclimated pre-crisis,” Monson said. “There’s a way of supporting someone so they hopefully move away from crisis and back toward wellness with a gravity assist.”
Gravity assist is a term to describe one object helping another object get from one point to another if that object is not capable of getting there on its own. This concept is applied to the COMET process by using people to help each other stay mentally well.
The questions that initiate the COMET process include, “You don’t seem to be yourself lately,” or “I noticed you haven’t … lately,” or “How are things at home/work/school?”
Sometimes these questions make people feel nosy; however, for someone in a vulnerable space, they can make a big difference, said Monson.
“There’s a difference in being nosy because you’re a gossip, and recognizing that someone is in distress and you want to support them and be kind,” he said.  
Once the initial question is asked, a person is to listen without offering solutions with the objective of holding space for the person under stress, so they can feel heard. When people offer solutions right away, the person under stress may feel as if the questioner is trying to get rid of them, and the true problem might never surface.
Frakes and Monson gave an example of a neighbor noticing a fellow neighbor’s unkept lawn. If someone were to bring the subject up to the home owner with the intention of initiating the COMET process, it might seem logical to offer help with the yard work. However, it is important to realize the real problem is not the yard; the yard is the visible part. The lawn might be neglected due to other chaotic factors causing stress for the person and moving them toward crisis.
“You don’t want to go into fix-it mode too fast because sometimes people are just checking to see if it’s really OK that they talk about a problem,” Frakes said.
Once a person does open up, it is important to offer full attention. People will be more honest when there is adequate eye contact and follow-up questions are asked. It can also be helpful to follow up a few days later with a text or a phone call.
“Following up really helps build trust, and calling or texting can be a good strategy to do that,” Monson said.
One thing that causes people to hesitate to ask questions is the anxiety of how to end a conversation once it has started. The training emphasizes concluding with care by ending on a positive note.
“Something as simple as saying, ‘Thank you for sharing this with me,’ and reassuring them that what they have said is going to stay with you can make people feel better about disclosing information,” Monson said.
The process is meant to deal with people who may be in a vulnerable space. More in-depth trainings are available for people who are worried about a loved one in crisis. Frakes said everything is more manageable with help.
“To me, the core of COMET is anything we are struggling with can be talked about,” he said. “When people sit and listen to us, we don’t feel so alone.”