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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Mental health support initiative focuses on women farmers in Wisconsin

Stephanie Schneider (right) is among the women farmers being trained to build mental health support in rural Wisconsin.
Kriss Marion
Stephanie Schneider (right) is among the women farmers being trained to build mental health support in rural Wisconsin.

Please note - This interview addresses both suicide and addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or thoughts of suicide—help is available at 800-273-8255.

The pandemic put stress on many people, and Wisconsin's farmers were some of the most significantly impacted. According to the CDC, farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide than any other occupation. In addition to work-related stress, farmers often live in rural areas, which can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

A statewide collaboration is focusing on addressing those struggles, particularly among women farmers. Wisconsin Women in Conservation is launching a program to train women to recognize and respond to someone in need.

Stephanie Schneider owns a farm southwest of Eau Claire. She’s one of the women who will go through the training. Schneider thinks women face unique challenges and stressors.

"Obviously, I think men have a lot of stress, so I don't want to diminish that," Schneider says. "My biggest stressors in my life growing up were men who were not dealing with their mental health issues in healthy ways."

Schneider's father died at age 49, "because he turned to an unhealthy form of coping," she says. Yet, Schneider believes women often face unique challenges.

"Women tend to be caregivers, nurturers [and] we do take on that emotional load...but we also have this guilt too," Schneider explains. "I know I do. Like I still feel guilty about hiring somebody to clean the house—I don't want people to know I can't handle it all."

Chris Frakes will be providing mental health support training. She is the program director at Farm Well Wisconsin, based in southwest Wisconsin. Frakes says mental health issues that famers face shaped her career.

"I grew up in Iowa, and my mom's side of the family were all farmers, row crops primarily. And I sort of in my late teens, and early adulthood was living through the farm crisis with the rest of the country," says Frakes. "It was really impactful to me to see the kind of stress...for my own family members who were farming, but then we also had a couple of suicides in our community. Like many small towns, when there's a tragedy like that, it really shakes the core of the community."

These experiences led to Frakes’ lifelong mission. “Trying to figure out how do we make it more acceptable to talk about mental health concerns and provide enough support in our small communities where there aren’t mental health professionals,” she says.

Frakes discovered a training program called COMET that was developed in Colorado. “It’s called COMET, which stands for Changing Our Mental and Emotional Trajectory. It was developed by farmers and ranchers in conjunction with some researchers at one of their universities to respond to the same kinds of issues we’ve been seeing in Wisconsin,” Frakes says.

She says role-playing is an important piece of the training.

“We’ll have role plays that we’ll ask people to do in paired Zoom rooms, and then we come back and really thoroughly debrief them. Where did they get stuck? What did they have questions about? What did they not feel comfortable with?” Frakes says. “And we talk about setting boundaries.”

Participants leave the training with a list of state and regional resources specifically for people who need more than a trained sympathetic ear.

"Through the state, there are good resources available to farmers at this point, and so we make sure people have those numbers in addition to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. [We provide] local county resources [too] so that they walk away from the workshop with a full set of [resources]," Frakes says. "[People will be able to tell if] this person is really in crisis, not just vulnerable or stressed, [and] know where to turn next to get them connected to additional services."

Farmer Stephanie Schneider thinks having a fellow farmer to talk to is an invaluable resource for a stressed person. That opinion is based on her own experience.

“When I have called to set up counseling appointments in the past, they’re usually three, four, five weeks out, [and] they can’t talk today, unless I’m in a crisis,” Schneider adds. “And so when I think where this will be very helpful is that you immediately have people that you can reach out to and help you in a healthy way.”

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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