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Combating the negative stigma of mental health in rural communities

The Colorado Department of Agriculture hosted a talk on rural mental health Wednesday on Facebook Live. Panelists from five organizations that work in mental health for farmers answered questions from a moderator and viewers.

The group discussed the connection between physical and mental health, the stigma around mental health in rural communities, the resources available in their areas and more.

Panelist Rebecca Edlund, Associate Director of Technology and Membership at the Colorado Farm Bureau, works with the bureau’s Colorado Agricultural Addiction and Mental Health Program. She said farmers and ranchers face similar stressors to people in urban areas, such as economic changes.



Edlund said rural life can amplify stress through geographic and social separation, high community transparency, limited control of factors like weather and input costs and lack of mental health resources.

“As (farmers and ranchers) engage in those specific realities, they have to face them with tremendous strength and tenacity,” Edlund said. “But the resources around mental health specifically have been largely stigmatized. They’re very vulnerable in that conversation, and often don’t have access to care in general.”



Battling stigma

The panel discussed the negative stigma around mental health services in rural communities and how to combat it. Edlund said people can battle stigma by sharing their own stories about taking care of their mental health.

Another panelist Chad Reznicek, a Behavioral Health Specialist with the Colorado AgrAbility Project, said education about mental health makes people more likely to seek help. Feeling disconnected from others and feeling like a burden on them are major suicide risk factors, Reznicek said, so it is important to let people know you value them.

“So when we ask, ‘How are you feeling today?’ It’s more than just accepting ‘Fine,’” Reznicek said. “‘Are you sure? Because it seems like you’ve got a lot on your plate lately.’ Just taking that extra moment to make it clear that we are connected, that we care about people, I think that goes a long way.”

Hanna Bates works for Southeast Health Group as the Agricultural Outreach Coordinator at the Coffee Break Project. She said to the other panelists that SHG provides COMET (Changing Our Mental and Emotional Trajectory) training, which emphasizes the importance of engaging others and actively listening to them.

“Take the time to listen to them because nine times out of 10 that’s all somebody really wants,” Bates said. “They want to be validated, they want to have somebody listen to what is going on in their life. And that might be the difference between somebody taking their life or somebody having a good day.”

Mental and physical health

AgWell Program Director Clinton Wilson sat on the panel and said stress can affect physical health, especially the circulatory system. Physical actions can affect your mental health as well, which is why Wilson said AgWell teaches a technique called box breathing to their clients, which uses timed inhales, exhales and pauses.

“I practice this every night before I go to bed,” Wilson said. “It really does help me to calm down, to let go and to focus on my breath.”

Reznicek called the relationship between mental and physical health a “two-way street.” AgrAbility provides farmers and ranchers with disabilities with tools ranging from vibration-reducing gloves to wheelchair lifts to help them do their jobs. The company gives their clients a quality of life survey before and after helping them.

“What they found, after doing the physical assessments and accommodations, people’s psychological well being increased by 28%, their existential well-being by 21%,” Reznicek said. “Then their perceived level of support by 20%.”

The last panelist was Mariel Balbuena, executive director of the La Plata Family Centers Coalition. She said fighting the stigma against mental health care will get people to treat issues more like physical ailments.

“If you have a toothache, you go to the dentist,” Balbuena said. “If something happens to you, you go to the emergency room, so if you’re having some anxiety or depression you probably shouldn’t be having, just seek a mental health provider, because our mind is as important as our heart, blood pressure or a tooth.”


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