RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. (Aug. 6, 2021) — With help from the University of Kentucky, teens from Warren and Logan counties transformed the Logan County Extension office into a dinner theater to relay the message to local farm families that is ok to not be ok.
The teens were the first performers of a pilot Farmers’ Dinner Theater specifically focused on farm stress and mental health. It is a program a year in the making, and one that UK hopes to share with other rural communities across the Southeast.
UK's College of Nursing and College of Agriculture, Food and Environment have partnered to develop resources and programs addressing rural mental health, like the theater, with funding from the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition. This was made possible through a nursing innovation grant with support from the Center to Champion Nursing in America, a joint effort of the AARP Foundation, AARP and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and additional support from the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association. The theater builds on the “Farmers’ Dinner Theater” model developed by Deborah Reed, UK nursing professor emeritus, which educated farm families about unaddressed health and safety risks at convenient times in a casual setting close to their homes.
Mental health services are often lacking in rural communities, which can make it difficult for someone who is struggling to get qualified local help. This is especially true in Kentucky where 112 out of 120 counties are considered medically underserved.
“Part of our goal with this project is to normalize the conversation about mental health,” said Jennifer Hunter, assistant director of UK family and consumer sciences extension. “We want to make it easier for someone to get help. Hopefully, we make it easier for someone to recognize if an individual needs help. We hope to provide access points, so people know where to go if someone does need help.”
Farmers face a unique set of stressors related to their profession. Warren County grain farmers Jennifer and Tom Tucker, who attended the theater, said they sometimes refer to themselves as “professional gamblers” because of all the uncertainties in agriculture.
“We gamble when we plant it. We gamble with harvest. We gamble with prices. Everything we do is out of our control,” Jennifer Tucker said. “When you feel that control slipping, that’s your whole life, so it is pretty important.”
“There is stress every day with the weather, the grain market, employees and with family,” said Tom Tucker. “We deal with it every day. Some days it is better than others, but it is definitely a stressful job.”
Agents with the UK Cooperative Extension Service in Warren and Logan counties helped recruit students to participate and helped facilitate the weeklong program. They also encouraged local farmers to attend the show.
Jenna Coles, a Logan County High School junior, knows firsthand the stress that comes from running a family farm as she lives and breathes it every day. That is why she presented the idea to her local FFA chapter, many of whom decided to participate.
“I wanted to get more people my age involved with it, so we all knew about mental health and how to cope with different situations,” she said. “The most stressful thing is when you get a call at 2 in the morning saying, ‘The cows are out, and we have to go get them.’ That is really stressful on the farmers and their families.”
Teens learned how to write scripts, design sets and act, and they received QPR training from Julie Marfell, UK nursing associate professor, and Lee Anne Walmsley, UK nursing assistant professor and chair of the college’s work-life and student wellness. QPR stands for question, persuade and refer and is aimed at helping the youth recognize when someone is going through a difficult time and ways to help them get them the mental health services they need.
“I’ve spent my career trying to make sure people in rural and underserved areas have access to care,” said Marfell, who is also co-investigator on the grant and president-elect of the Kentucky Nurses Action Coalition. “To be able to come down here and do this and see these youth just come to life this week, has been very uplifting for me. I think I got as much out of it as they did.”
The theater is just one tool UK is using to address rural mental health concerns. Through various grants UK family and consumer sciences extension has added three new extension specialists, Paul Norrod, Joseph Schroeder and Laura Weddle, who are focused on farm stress and rural mental health.
“These specialists will allow us to reach new audiences and serve our farmers in new and different ways and hopefully provide that support across the state that is needed,” Hunter said.
The specialists will conduct research on farm stress and mental health, develop educational resources including a farmer’s suicide hotline, and educate health care professionals about the unique stressors farm families face.
“It’s personal to me because it is my people,” said Norrod, who grew up on a beef cattle and tobacco farm in Crossville, Tennessee.
Norrod, who is also a registered nurse, became passionate about rural mental health after his community experienced a string of suicides when he was a teenager.
“I hope to take what I learn in my research and bring it to the community,” he said. “The more we are able to talk to people and get them to realize it’s ok to talk about it, the healthier our communities will be.”
The second pilot Farmer’s Dinner Theater performance will occur Sept. 22 in Daviess and Henderson counties.
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