In this year’s special presentation, Betsy Hartley of Oregon FFA moderated a panel of subject specialists discussing mental health and stress in agricultural workplaces and rural communities. Oregon Aglink is grateful to have had the participation of speakers who often agreed but always had unique insights to offer from their experience. Ivan Estrada works with OSU Extension’s Coast to Forest program to improve access to mental health and substance abuse resources, Liz Hill is a Total Worker Health Adviser at SAIF, and Paul Giger is a psychiatrist and the Medical Director for Providence Behavioral Health.
An early idea that the panel revisited often was defining mental health. Alternatively called mental wellness by some, the panelists established strong connections or parallels between mental health and physical health overall. Rather than a “character flaw” or something shameful, says Estrada, “it’s something we should be approaching much like diabetes, cancer, and other health issues we’re more comfortable discussing already.” One advantage to that parallel, according to Giger, is that language around acute injuries and chronic illness can help people understand that mental health also benefits from check-ins and sometimes long-term management in the case of common conditions like depression or anxiety.
“There’s a spectrum” rather than someone being completely ill or completely well, says Hill, “most of us at one point or another in our life can struggle with mental health.” All of the panelists agreed that normalizing the subject, and our experiences, is a big step in improving our collective mental wellness.
Myths and stigmas about mental illness or addiction are not the only barriers to getting help. Many rural areas might have limited resources for mental health emergencies or long-term support like therapists and psychiatrists. With the Coast to Forest program, Estrada and others are working to create a list of county-by-county resources for rural communities in Oregon. One unexpected windfall from the pandemic, says Giger, is that telehealth is becoming a more accepted option for support.
Available does not always equal accessible, though. As Hill points out, “not all employers can provide benefits. It can be cost-prohibitive.” Yet the increasing awareness and demand might be shifting priorities in available coverage. According to Hill, “over the last two years, [SAIF has had] more employers open up to say they’re having a problem with stress or want to talk about suicide prevention.” Rather than alarming, we can see that trend as encouraging: addressing the problem is a solid step toward directing the resources to solve it.
A final theme of the panel was the role of workplaces, communities, and other “teams” in mental health. The stress and isolation of COVID-19 has only compounded the isolation you commonly find with struggles like depression or anxiety and even more generally in some rural work. Supervisors and team members can be instrumental in asking those initial questions about how someone is doing. “We’re all humans,” says Giger, “we can recognize when someone seems ‘off’ or isn’t doing well, especially when we know them.”
In addition to identifying resources and training people with programs like QPR (see “Groundwork for Saving Lives” article), Estrada brings up the idea of establishing policies and protocols. “We all know the plan in the workplace if I trip and break my leg,” he says, “but we don’t really have that if someone is in a mental health crisis.”
Even before a crisis emerges, though, employers can encourage their workers to speak up and ask for help before the breaking point. Hill, for instance, likes the question: “How do you make the behavior you want the easy behavior to choose?” For Giger, that might look like bringing up the topic of stress or mental health at workplace meetings to pave the way for more open conversations. According to Hill, people are 80% more likely to utilize a resource when a supervisor has mentioned it in a positive way. Creating easier and better choices for employees to seek help is essential to a system where individuals work together to support each other through their hardest times.
Workplace injuries and deaths that can be linked to stress and mental health struggles can affect the entire workforce and whole rural communities where everyone seems to know everyone else. Hill explains further: “people who see the behavior as individual but then see the community impact learn pretty quickly that it’s a community effort to learn and prevent that and recognize signs that someone is struggling. I don’t think anyone would argue that the community needs to pull together to prevent that.”
Thank you to our moderator, panelists, and attendees for giving time to this important topic. For further resources, visit aglink.org