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Putting mental health first: Extension supports farmers and more in Pennsylvania

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As communities observe Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Penn State Extension seeks to remind the public of available resources — such as webinars, fact sheets and classes — that focus on farm stress, mental health and strategies to deal with challenging times.

Extension educators point out that anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges have escalated over the past decade. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those ages 10-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Stigma and lack of acceptance not only affect those with mental health challenges but also leave long-lasting wounds in our society,” said Jacqueline Amor-Zitzelberger, food, families and health extension educator. “Raising awareness and promoting prevention can pave the way for a more compassionate and understanding community, ultimately saving lives and fostering a healthier future for all.”

Following are extension programs that can help residents address mental health concerns:

Mental health first aid

The “Mental Health First Aid” classes are aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding mental health challenges and increasing awareness through an evidence-based curriculum created by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing. The training helps participants identify, understand and respond to early signs of mental health and substance use challenges. Participants can practice the skills needed to provide initial emotional support and practical assistance, as well as connect individuals with appropriate services.

Training options are tailored to meet the specific needs of different populations. Virtual training is available for adults and adults working with children and youth. There are in-person workshops for public safety personnel, fire and emergency medical services personnel, older adults, and veterans and their families. For more information about training options and costs, private groups can contact the mental health first aid team. Contact information is available on the course webpage.

Farm stress

Farming is a highly stressful and hazardous industry with numerous risks, such as unpredictable weather, machinery breakdowns, disease outbreaks, cost increases, and fluctuating milk and crop prices. These challenges can create significant stress for farmers and their families.

Available on request, a workshop called “Weathering the Storm” is designed to help farmers understand the signs and impact of stress on the body, the root causes of stress and practical coping skills. People interested in the course, which also includes information on helpful local and state resources, can contact a member of Extension’s farm stress team — listed on the workshop webpage — to schedule a webinar or in-person workshop in their community.

Two other workshops, “Communicating with Farmers Under Stress” and “Mending the Stress Fence,” are geared toward community members, agriculture industry professionals, veterinarians, loan officers and others. Developed by Michigan State University Extension, these courses are intended to help participants build awareness of the stressors affecting farmers and their families; recognize the signs and symptoms of anxiety and the warning signs of suicide; approach and assist farmers who show changes in their mental health; and access local, state and national resources. Training is available on request by contacting a member of the farm stress team.

Extension’s new “Farm Stress Real Talk” podcast focuses on supporting farmers, farm families and workers in the commercial agriculture industry who are experiencing stress. The farm stress extension team hosts informal conversations with educators, Penn State faculty and other agricultural professionals. The podcast covers topics that challenge the farming community, provides constructive suggestions and builds awareness around potentially stressful conditions affecting farmers. Guests share their research and real-life experiences to help listeners identify signs of stress and develop coping strategies.

Suicide prevention

The “Question, Persuade and Refer: Gatekeeper Suicide Prevention Training,” is designed to provide evidence-based suicide prevention training for individuals concerned about helping those with mental health and substance use challenges. The goal is to recognize warning signs of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, ask questions about how someone is feeling, practice active listening, persuade individuals to seek professional help, and refer individuals to appropriate resources. This workshop is suitable for social service agencies, first responders, faith-based organizations and anyone seeking more information on helping individuals in suicidal crisis. To request training, individuals can contact a member of the Penn State Extension QPR team.

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