The agriculture community is defined by perseverance, stubbornness and a strong will that keeps it going through all kinds of challenges and hardships.
But the devastating COVID-19 pandemic is enough to test the mettle of the most determined farmer — especially dairy producers, as the crisis comes on the heels of a five-year run of extremely low milk prices.
With rural life’s inherent isolation factored in, this stress can pose a dangerous situation for farmers overburdened with personal and financial struggles, which sometimes leads to suicide.
“Rural communities don’t have appropriate mental health infrastructure,” said Katie Downes, NY FarmNet outreach director. “There aren’t enough doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists to meet their needs.”
In a “Stress Management/Mental Health Awareness” webinar, Downes and NY FarmNet family consultant Brenda O’Brien told how closely related physical and emotional well-being are, how to identify and manage stress, and things people can do to build resiliency and stay positive during this extremely trying time.
The session was presented by the Albany, New York-based Northeast Agribusiness and Feed Alliance. “The agriculture and food system is under tremendous stress today as COVID-19 has impacted our health, our markets, our way of life,” said Rick Zimmerman, NEAFA executive director. “NY FarmNet’s professional family and financial consultants are available to meet with farm families, to listen and offer guidance and support that can literally make a difference between life and death.”
NY FarmNet is a Cornell University program, founded in 1986 in response to a nationwide farm crisis, and offers a wide range of services from business planning to personal well-being.
“One of the biggest parts of resilience is being able to adapt and be flexible,” O’Brien said. “We may not be able to control everything that goes
on around us. We have to be able to embrace change; understand that life is always going to change. We have to improvise, change course, change plans.”
During a recent emergency trip to Virginia, for example, she was impressed with how a Chick-fil-A restaurant has responded to the pandemic with a well-organized, smooth-running system of handling customers.
“I was car No. 22 in line,” she said. “They had set up three different lines, there were six employees, all gloved and masked. I had my food in 4 minutes flat. This is adaptability, this is being able to be flexible, understanding that if plans A, B and C don’t work there are more letters in the alphabet.”
In addition to adaptability and flexibility, O’Brien pointed out four other key traits to being resilient. They are:
• Confronting reality head-on. Without getting fixated on problems, stay keenly aware of the magnitude of the seriousness of what’s going on around you. A state of denial isn’t healthy.
• Believe life has purpose. “People with resilience tend to have a bigger picture than just what they’re going through,” O’Brien said.
• Perspective: “I choose to not dwell on the negative,” she said. “That’s something we need to encourage our farmers, friends and family to do. You are what you think about. The more negative you are, the worse it’s going to be because you don’t tend to see the things that are changeable around you. Ask yourself, ‘Can I change this?’ If the answer is no, change your thinking, focus on things you can change.”
• Healthy habits. This includes proper diet, rest and exercise, and knowing when to turn off computer and television screens. Bedrooms should not have office space. Keep work and sleep time separate.
In addition, it’s important to nurture close relationships.
“People who are the most resilient have networks of people around them,” O’Brien said. “They aren’t loners. We’re all going to get knocked down more than once in life.”
But even the best athletes have failures, without
letting it define them. For example, Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter was famous for having a “short memory,” an ability to put bad games behind him and look ahead to the next day.
“When you build these resilience tools into your life you will get back up,” O’Brien said. “You will be stronger for it. You’ll learn to improvise where you can and you’ll refocus on your goals.
You will be better for it.”
Following a short break in the webinar, Downes led a discussion about mental health and suicide risks and warnings signs.
“Mental illness is a disease and should be taken seriously,” she said. “Mental and physical health should be taken the same. Our brain is an organ; it’s all part of our body.”
The tendency, on the part of many people, is to shy away from individuals suffering from a drug disorder or depression.
“But when you’re in a really dark place like that, having someone reach out and connect with you goes a really long way,” Downes said. “It’s not always easy asking for or getting help for mental health disorders. Start with your primary care physician.”
She suggested several tips to follow in an effort to normalize mental health.
These are: talk openly about it; be conscious of the language you use; educate yourself and others; encourage equality between physical and mental health; show compassion; choose empowerment over shame; be honest about treatment; don’t harbor self-stigma.
An online, international Mental Health First Aid training course provides a first aid-level knowledge of such issues and makes it easier for people, if needed, take the next step of reaching out for more professional help. It can be viewed at mentalhealthfirstaid.org “It’s OK to ask for help,” Downes said. “Having someone there when you’re struggling can really help. There is hope. You can get through these things. Mental illness is recoverable.”
To view the entire “Stress Management/Mental Health Awareness” webinar, go to nyfarmnet.org/webinars