Since 1993, Ted Matthews, director of mental health outreach for Minnesota Department of Agriculture, has been taking calls and counseling farm families under stress. His free services are needed now more than ever as farmers face the challenges of a difficult farm economy.
“People are losing their farms. The last thing they need is a bill to talk to me,” said Matthews.
Matthews’ counseling services are open to all farm families at (320) 266-2390. When farmers call Matthews, there is no diagnosis. “It isn’t about what’s wrong with you. It’s about how do you make this life better.”
Matthews also works to help farmers better understand mental health. Besides answering calls, he speaks to farm groups year-round.
“When farmers hear the word mental health, they think mental illness,” said Matthews. “There is not a person on this planet that being mentally healthier isn’t a good idea. The whole idea is to be mentally healthier and happier.”
Matthews gets hundreds of phone calls. People talk for five, 10 and 20 minutes. One of his rules is anonymity. He doesn’t keep records and take names, but many call later to let him know how they’re doing or ask him what he thinks about another situation.
Matthews also does face-to-face counseling with individuals, couples and farm families. He even works with families who aren’t getting along during the farm transition. He travels to colleges statewide to meet with people individually.
“Marriage counseling is a lot more popular than it used to be,” said Matthews.
For older farmers, the current farm economy brings back memories of the 1980s farm crisis. However, most bankers and other professionals who work with farmers, can’t relate.
“People who are 40 don’t remember the ’80s at all,” Matthews explained.
Back in the 1980s, the person who dealt with the stress was the farmer. “Now it’s the whole family — sons, wives, the entire family is dealing directly with that stress,” he said.
Before, the family dealt indirectly. “It may not have been worse or better, but it definitely was different,” he said.
Up until 50 years ago, working harder or longer was the solution that could take care of the gap in finance.
“Now if you work 24/7 and make a couple bad decisions, you’re out. I don’t care how hard you work. It doesn’t matter,” said Matthews.
Now every financial decision becomes critical.
And non-farmers don’t understand the plight of the farmer. Non-farmers think farmers are rich because of the value of their land.
“Farmers farm. They don’t sell real estate. It doesn’t matter what the land is worth unless they want to sell it. No farmer wants to sell their land,” said Matthews.
In addition, women’s role on the farm has changed. Many women are doing the books and chores on the farm, along with working off-farm to bring home income and benefits. Farm couples are navigating these changes, but they can’t look to the previous generation for advice or role models.
Many women are frustrated because they do not feel appreciated or recognized for the off-farm work they do to support the farm, explained Matthews.
“The guy talks about the farm. She wants to talk about her job. Nobody seems to care about those things,” said Matthews. “It’s ironic because in the past there was a whole lot more time to communicate. Now there’s a lot less time and a lot more need.”
Farm Business Management instructors, bankers, lawyers and crop consultants give his number to farm clients. While Matthews has been fielding more calls from farmers, he is also getting more calls from the people who work with farmers.
Matthews is a main presenter at MDA’s Down on the Farm: Supporting Farmers in Stressful Times workshops statewide this winter. The workshops are being held to help people working with farmers to identify signs of mental and emotional distress and crisis.
Farmers have a higher suicide rate than any other occupation, including veterans, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016. Mental health professionals express concern over farmers’ isolation and access to firearms.
Over the years, Matthews has dealt with suicidal people. He refers them to reputable therapist in their area. Another major issue are attempted suicides, which are not identified in statistics. Loved ones worry that another attempt will end in death.
“Who’s gonna watch them? Who’s gonna help them? That’s a huge issue. Very few people talk about that,” said Matthews.
Matthews believes his outreach has been successful because farmers are comfortable calling him.
“They don’t see me as a psychologist, they see me as a ‘Ted.’ I like that,” said Matthews.
Working with farmers and helping them is what Ted Matthews loves to do.
“It’s a joy. I’m proud of the fact that they trust me enough to call. I never take that for granted ever,” said Matthews.