Task force takes on rural stress in Minnesota

Jerry Jennissen inspects a county ditch with son in-law Lucas Sjostrom.
Jerry Jennissen inspects a county drainage ditch with his son in-law Lucas Sjostrom in September 2016.
Courtesy of the Environmental Initiative 2016 file

The University of Minnesota has established a new rural stress task force to address a wide range of socioeconomic issues.

University of Minnesota Extension Dean Bev Durgan said the effort comes in response to the stress on farm families and rural communities brought on by several years of low farm income.

"We're losing farms. Main Street is looking different — and [the] Extension's role is to really help people be able to get the information they need and to help them make decisions of what this means for them," Durgan said.

"Is it to prevent farm foreclosures? You know, that is probably something we can't do, but it really is how do we help communities to respond, how do we help families to adjust to this change."

The task force has been established to work for one year, but Durgan expects it will be needed for the long term.

U of M Extension educator Emily Wilmes will lead the group. She acknowledges it will be difficult to help farmers who are often too proud to admit the stress is overwhelming.

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"It can be difficult for anyone to just say, 'I'm not okay' or 'I need help' or 'This isn't working any more' — and I think the biggest way to break down that stigma is you just have to keep talking about it," she said. "You have to make these things part of normal conversation. You need to let people know that it is okay."

In addition to stress-related mental health concerns, the task force will try to tackle opioid and substance abuse and the shortage of day care in rural areas — all very challenging issues Durgan said are related to economic stress.

Wilmes said the task force won't reinvent the wheel, but will work with existing programs to find the best way to help people find solutions.

"It's really going to be approaching this from multiple angles and through a lot of different lenses to figure out how do you meet people where they're at, how do you get them connected in different ways to the different resources that they may need," said Wilmes.

The task force will work with a variety of organizations and governments agencies that already offer services, and will spend some time listening to rural residents to learn about the need for any new services, said Wilmes.