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Supporting farmers in rural Wisconsin with conversations

Supporting farmers in rural Wisconsin with conversations
Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Shawn Monson has a plan to help stoic farmers open up about their mental health. Educate folks who are around them on how to have supportive conversations.

“We can begin to build a safety net around farmers by mobilizing those people who see and work with them – veterinarians, community members, and family members,” he said.

Monson helps run Farm Well Wisconsin, an organization based in southwestern Wisconsin that supports farmers’ health and well-being. He knows getting farmers to talk about their feelings is easier said than done. Shawn grew up on a dairy farm north of Barneveld, Wis. When he was nine years old, his parents chose to sell their dairy herd and took jobs off the farm.

“It’s the only job I know of that you can work your tail off, do everything right and still be unsure if you’re going to turn a profit,” Monson said.

His dad worked in manufacturing and his mom became a rural mail carrier.

“My parents were stressed about the lower milk prices,” Monson said. “Money was tight, but they didn’t talk about it.”

Now, he’s on a mission to make sure farmers do talk. Monson knows that while folks in rural communities may bristle at the mention of a therapist, they’re probably already treating their local vet, librarian, or pharmacist like one. And what if those folks were trained to recognize symptoms of emotional distress and then do something about it?

The wellness team at Gundersen Boscobel Area Hospital and Clinics sees the power of supportive conversations too. Business operations manager Natalie Tollefson and community wellness coordinator Cameron Novy have partnered with Monson to further train folks in western Wisconsin communities. 

“We can bring the players together to talk about and promote health and well-being,” says Tollefson, noting that mental health came up as the number one priority in Gundersen Boscobel’s recent assessment of community concerns. Gundersen Boscobel is co-hosting – along with Southwest Wisconsin Technical College in Fennimore – the Farm Well program “Breaking the Cycle of Farm Stress.” “While we’re not teaching the course, we’re supporting the planning and promotion.”

A nearby local library is also helping to increase the safety net surrounding farmers. Library programming coordinator Kristin Holman-Steffel at the Schreiner Memorial Library in Lancaster, Wis., helped host a training called “COMET, Changing our Mental and Emotional Trajectory.”

COMET teaches community members to pay attention if a neighbor seems off and then probe a bit deeper than he or she normally would. For example: “We missed you at last week’s craft meeting. How are you doing?” If that person engages, the two can chat more over coffee.

Monson uses these tactics with farmers but says it’s beneficial knowledge for everyone. It’s a simple idea that involves having supportive conversations, naming emotions, and validating experiences.

“I’ve already used the COMET training quite a bit in my role at the library,” Holman-Steffel said. “A little empathy, compassion and safe space to let people share and be vulnerable is really important.”

The more people in communities who can break through the silence and have supportive conversations, Monson said, the more we can break the chain of stoicism.

“When we ask our neighbor, ‘How are you doing?’ we might hear, ‘Fine. Good. Busy,’” Monson notes. He hopes that we can begin to gently probe a bit deeper. “If a neighbor seems to be struggling, try asking: ‘How are you doing, really?’”

And then, he says, make space for a supportive and authentic conversation.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also call the 24/7 Farmer Wellness Hotline, 888-901-2558.

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