July 25, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Hello MindSite News readers! It’s great to be back. In today’s Daily, mental health experts struggle to support farmers in Georgia whose mental health is under threat. Plus, a teen podcast on dealing with an eating disorder and recovery, building a daily meditation practice, and exploring grief through food. Plus, the Department of Veterans Affairs says it aims to help all vets get access to mental healthcare.

A Georgia university struggles to improve farmers’ mental health 

Drought, flooding, wildfires, farm debt, labor shortages, falling commodity prices, and wildly uncertain income: Small wonder many farmers suffer from high stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health crises. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, farmers are twice as likely as people in other professions to die by suicide. With this in mind, the University of Georgia has run a new program over the last year called Meet at the Shed through its College of Family and Consumer Sciences that is aimed at improving farmers’ mental health. Putting it mildly, the going has been tough. While a number of older rural men attend regularly, program officials told Atlanta magazine that no farmers have ever shown up. “Farmers are sort of brought up to be independent and not ask for help,” said Diane Bales, an extension specialist at the college. (This was echoed by other mental health farming programs; however, mental health advocacy programs have been embraced by farmers in Nebraska, Oklahoma, Massachusetts, and other states.)

Farmers run Georgia’s largest industry, often under excruciatingly difficult conditions. Profit margins are slim for family-owned farms, crops are at the mercy of the weather, and social isolation is all too common. Moreover, rural communities are already at a disadvantage relative to the number of mental health providers available to help people, especially men, manage depression within a culture that teaches men to hide their pain. The silence can be life-threatening. A 2022 statewide survey of Georgia’s farmers from researchers at Mercer University found that nearly one-third of them had considered suicide within one month of taking the survey, while 60 percent said they’d considered it within the previous year. 

Hence, UGA’s Meet at the Shed program. Its founding was inspired after a small group at the university read US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, which discussed the Men’s Shed movement. It began in Australia but has now reached the UK and US. Here, the motto is, “Men don’t talk face to face. We talk shoulder to shoulder.” Though UGA is still trying to reach farmers, the program is slowly growing by giving rural men a place to meet and speak honestly about their feelings – all without having to admit that’s what they’re there to do in the first place.

Kyle Haney, a rural health manager at FACS who organizes UGA’s Meet at the Shed gatherings, continues to actively recruit from all over the area, hoping to get farmers in one of these days. He’s got some support from Jennifer Dunn, Georgia’s first-ever rural health agent. Her tactic: surreptitiously gauge a person’s mental state and share resources for mental health support at meetings also designed for farmers to discuss crop production. “I sneak it in there,” Dunn said. Alongside info packets about pesticides is her phone number and a flier about emotional health. She knows they see it, Dunn said. After one recent meeting, a 67-year-old farmer walked up to her and said, “Who would’ve thought that y’all cared enough to ask?”

Meditation benefits mental health, but how should you do it?

Beginning your day with meditative practice is one way to get going. Meditation instructor Eva Tsuda advises building it into your morning routine the way you build in brushing your teeth or washing your face. Do it in the same spot, and know that five minutes is plenty of time to start. “It will set the tone for the day,” Tsuda told the New York Times, and it will likely make the practice easier to do consistently. 

What else can you do to make meditation stick? Start small. “If you’re in a highly anxious state or feeling pain, even five minutes can feel too long,” explained Alma Ivanovic, owner of a meditation studio in Chicago. “Set your timer for two and a half minutes, see how you feel, then hit repeat.” Like Ivanovic, you might also rethink what you use to signal that your meditation time is up. She uses an hourglass to look at the moving sand, but you could simply edit the sound on your phone to something inviting, like a chime or gentle bell. 

Additional tips include focusing on your senses, adding an affirmation or mantra, and – for people like myself who struggle to sit still – incorporating movement. (I found a few yoga instructors I like on YouTube who offer morning movement meditation for ten minutes or less.) Most importantly, though, treat this like a time to care for yourself. Not being able to meditate five minutes right away doesn’t make you a “meditation failure,” so don’t treat yourself like one. “The whole purpose of meditation,” Tsuda said, is “to train ourselves to be present with our experience without criticizing or judging ourselves.”

Teen explores her relationship to food and mental health in award-winning podcast

In Discomfort Food, Grace Go’s recent podcast, she talks about her struggle with an eating disorder and how it complicated her relationship to her favorite food and her body. Her vulnerability and exploration of the subject won Discomfort Food the Best Mental Health Podcast in NPR’s 2023 Student Podcast Challenge

In the program, the rising senior from Seattle, Washington, sheds light on the importance and value of food in her culture, while also noticing the parts of the same culture that “prevents many Asian Americans from having a healthy relationship with food.” For Go, that looked like family members criticizing her weight and commenting any time she got bigger. So, she began cutting out any foods she thought were bad for her, including her favorite budae jjigae, a South Korean stew that often includes sausage, kimchi, noodles and baked beans. This progressed until she was diagnosed with an eating disorder in November 2021. 

Approaching the podcast like a journalist, Go learned more about mental health in the Asian American community and interviewed Joann Kim, the family youth program manager at a Seattle-area Korean Community Service Center who helped Go recover. “My hope is that more resources will be provided to my community and mental health will become less stigmatized, so that one day, others who have experienced a similar journey to mine will be able to enjoy their discomfort food and find comfort within it,” Go said. 

In other news…

In other stories about food, writer Adam Delva shared this essay in LitHub on loving his brother, the difficulty he’s had in navigating grief since his brother’s death and the power of the foods they shared to stoke memories. 

More on 988: In an extension of the roundup we shared yesterday on the one-year anniversary of the 988 hotline, Axios reports that Texas is struggling to answer calls. Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly 25 percent of calls across the state went unanswered in April and May of this year. 

NBC News reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs is aware that Black vets are denied medical and mental healthcare at a higher rate than their white counterparts, so they’ve launched the Agency Equity Team to find out why. “At VA, it’s our mission to serve all veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors as well as they’ve served our country,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough in a statement. Ultimately, the VA says they hope to level the playing field for Blacks, women, and LGBTQ+ veterans.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...