Training tackles Wisconsin mental health crisis

DES MOINES, Iowa — Specialists in central Wisconsin are teaching a new mental-health first-aid program to rural community members, helping to address a crisis among farmers in the region.

The training saw an instructor teach various skills to participants, helping them understand what to do when they know or believe someone is struggling with mental health.

“It’s very similar to first-aid in that it administers basic care and gets someone to professional care,” project lead Josie Rudolphi, an associate scientist with the National Farm Medicine Center, said in an interview after discussing the program in late June during the Child Agricultural Injury Prevention workshop in Des Moines.

“It teaches someone to identify signs and symptoms of mental health disorders so they can triage the situation,” she said. “It teaches them an action plan to get the person out of crisis and into care.”

In central Wisconsin, she said, many farmers’ mental health has been deteriorating due to low dairy prices and crop concerns for this year.

Rudolphi said some dairy farms have closed and other farmers are financially strapped, worrying they will also have to close. As well, concerns over feed shortages linger due to potential low yields this year.

“It really seems like the deck is stacked against the Wisconsin farmer right now,” she said.

“It’s every day you wake up with a new stressor.”

Before launching the project, Rudolphi and her team realized mental health was poor in these communities, later determining a first-aid program could be beneficial.

The team hired an instructor who taught the eight-hour course to about 50 people in three counties.

The course, she said, teaches a five-step action plan to get someone out of crisis and into care.

The action plan helped participants assess someone for suicide risk, gave then non-judgmental listening skills, told them to be re-assuring, showed them how to encourage self-help, and taught them to encourage professional help if necessary.

Rudolphi said the team will soon follow-up with the communities to determine the program’s effectiveness, but preliminary results seem positive.

She said they saw less stigmatizing attitudes, and after the course, participants reported they had a network of peers they could rely on for advice on administering mental health first-aid.

“That’s a really important piece to this training,” she said. “It creates a small community, like the size of a classroom, helping them realize there are other people with the same concerns. If they have questions, they now know who they can call.”

Once Rudolphi evaluates the follow-up results from the program, she said it’s possible it could be expanded to other states.

“We would hate to encourage someone to adopt this if we don’t know if it works,” she said. “If it doesn’t, we can look at what we can change so we can scale it up.”

She hopes, however, that it addresses the mental health crisis in these communities.

“We know it is so hard to get professional mental health care in rural areas, given accessibility, acceptability and affordability of mental health care,” she said. “I would love to see us come at this from a community perspective and build capacity for the community to be those agents of mental health promotion.”

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