The difference between mental health, illness

Rural psychologist discusses how changes in agriculture affect perspective

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HUTCHINSON, Minn. — Ted Matthews spends his time connecting with farmers on an intellectual level. As a psychologist, he helps farmers navigate their emotions during stress or tragedy.

Matthews shared insight on how changes in agriculture have affected the challenges that farmers face in a webinar Dec. 12, 2023, broadcast by the Ohio Youth Resilience Collaborative. He also provided tips on how farmers can take a healthier approach to those challenges.

“To work with farmers, you need to understand the culture of farming or you won’t be doing them justice,” Matthews said. “To tell a farmer to look at some other occupation because they’re losing money is the cruelest thing you can say to a dairy farmer.”

Matthews has spent 23 years working as a psychologist with rural residents. He said the suicide rate among farmers is too high. He has witnessed the isolation that farmers face along with huge responsibilities on the farm and all the other work taking place at home. Often, the only people who see them are immediate family. And when the family notices them pulling away, they do not know what to do. So, they do nothing.

Matthews encourages people to ask for help before they can no longer control their emotions.

“When we are stressed, we have this idea that we can still handle it,” Matthews said. “Why do I have to get to a point where I can’t handle it anymore? Because sometimes that’s too far.”

Matthews said it is typical for people to be more willing to care for others than for themselves. The concept of self-care is misunderstood. It does not mean simply going to the movies on occasion. Instead, it is a mindset that includes being less judgmental of oneself.

Producers, or anyone in agriculture, should give themselves credit for things that go well, Matthews said. Matthews often sees people focusing on all that has gone wrong or things beyond their control rather than celebrating when things go well.

Matthews said that taking care of oneself is crucial.

“Somehow along the line, we said if we help other people, then they will help us,” Matthews said. “But, it’s the opposite. If I take care of myself, then I have the ability to take care of other people.”

Matthews has seen many changes in agriculture over the course of his decades-long career. The biggest change has been the role of women on the farm. While they used to spend most of their time raising children and working in the home, Matthews now sees a lot of women adding to this responsibility as active members of the farm labor force. Often, they work off the farm as well.

With the drastically changing roles, communication becomes more important than ever, Matthews said. And yet, there is less time to do so.

“Communication comes from hearing first,” Matthews said. “We have this concept of communication being you talk, I talk. It needs to be you listen, I listen.”

Farm transitions have changed as well, Matthews said. As technology advances, farmers can work longer. They are no longer passing the farm down to the first-born child because their bodies are worn out when they reach 60. Additionally, land values have changed and sometimes the only way to capture the value is to sell the land.

It all adds up to higher stress levels and more difficult circumstances in which to communicate. Again, when people are faced with the unknown, they often do nothing, Matthews said. In these instances, Matthews said it is helpful to focus on what a person can control. Even if that action makes a situation 5% better, it is better than nothing.

Journaling can be an effective tool to help people track personal progress. Matthews encourages people he visits to use a personal journal so they can see what 5% better looks like over time and build on it.

“Change is a slow process, and the best way to know if you are healthier now than six months ago is to journal,” Matthews said. “Be cruel with your emotions and keep it personal.”

Finally, another mindset change is to think of this concept as mental health instead of mental illness. Furthermore, think of a psychiatrist as someone to talk to rather than a medical doctor.

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