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Lake City dairy farmer becomes voice for rural mental health

Post-Bulletin - 4/2/2019

April 01-- Apr. 1--LAKE CITY

Dairy farmer Debbie Mills never thought of herself as someone who would seek out a mental health counselor.

When she woke up on March 23, she had no idea of the despair she would experience that night. She had no idea, when she went out to feed the calves, that she was about to be overwhelmed with hopelessness. But hopelessness has a way of sneaking up on you.

It hit her out in the barn.

So this tough, independent-minded Lake City dairy farmer did something she never in a million years imagined she would do: She called a rural mental health counselor.

The phone call with counselor Ted Matthews, as brief as it was, did not alter the fundamentals of Mills' life. It did not alter the economic reality of stagnant milk prices, rising costs and disappearing profit margins; of a bitterly cold winter that cost farmers livestock and calves and collapsed barns; or the fact that Mills and her husband, Kent, are living through the worst dairy farm crisis of the lives.

But it did help restore Mills' sense of hope.

"Unless you're a dairy farmer or farmer, you don't understand what living your life on margin is," Mills said. "You don't understand that almost everything you do to try to run this business is completely out of your control, whether it's prices or weather or regulations."

Mills is an unlikely champion of rural mental health counseling. Until this last week, she never saw herself as a candidate for counseling, much less talking about it publicly and advocating for rural mental health.

But the experiences of the last week have thrust Mills into situations she never imagined for herself.

"It's really hard to be vulnerable, and then to go public with it. That's a whole different level of vulnerability," she said.

Sense of isolation

Dairy farmers face pressures unique to their profession, said Meg Moynihan, a senior adviser for the state Department of Agriculture. The sense of isolation among farmers is possibly stronger than in previous farming crises, because they have fewer neighbors "who are in the same boat."

Some family farms are third-, fourth- and fifth-generation enterprises, and so the pressure to do right by their forbears and their kids and grandkids is immense.

"They say, 'if I can't make it work, then it's my fault.' And it's not," said Moynihan.

Mills has been a dairy farmer for 33 years. Even in the midst of the current crisis, Mills has never stopped loving dairy farming. She loves the cows, caring for the cows and the land. She and her husband raised their three daughters on dairy farming.

Mills also knows something about the nature of farmers, about their pride and independence, and about their reluctance to ask for help.

When suicide hotline numbers began appearing on milk checks and in rural publications last year, Mills recalled thinking to herself: No farmer is ever going to call that number. The stigma of asking ask for help would be too great for farmers.

A phone call changed her thinking.

Moving forward

The phone conversation with Matthews lasted perhaps no more than five minutes. It helped that Mills was connected with someone who worked with farmers. Mills didn't have to explain her situation, because Matthews, a rural counselor for two decades, knew what she was going through.

Matthews's simple words, "let's just focus on what we can do to move forward," helped banish the hopelessness.

"When someone tells you, 'you can move forward' -- because at the time, you're feeling hopeless, there is no forward, there is no future," Mills said. "To have him say, 'I know what you're going through, and we're going to look at how you can move forward.' It gives you hope and your future back.'"

The day after talking to a counselor, Mills participated in a health care roundtable hosted by DFL Gov. Tim Walz. Again, she did something out of character.

In a room full of cameras and reporters, Mills talked about the vital importance of rural mental health and how "we need more people" like Matthews. Mills didn't get very far before she became visibly chocked up.

"I had challenged myself that I wouldn't cry and that lasted about three words," she said.

Mills also thanked Walz for his mental health initiatives. They include adding a second mental health counselor and additional funding for the 24-hour hotline that farmers can call for one-on-one counseling.

Mills said she was willing to risk speaking out, because she didn't want the governor's rural mental health agenda to fall victim to partisan politics, to arguments that there is no farm crisis because the number of calls to the crisis hotline haven't increased.

"I wanted to explain: You don't know when the day it happens. You don't know what day you are going to be overwhelmed," Mills said.

Mills said that the hotline needs to be 24-hour service, because a farmer is only going to make that call once. And if they are told to leave a message, they are going to hang up and never make that call again. It will take a farmer all the courage they can muster to make that call, and it will probably only happen once.

Mills' circumstances haven't changed. The dairy farm economy is still horrible. But she has a sense of hope, thanks in part to a phone call and a connection that lifted her despair for that moment.

"Farmers have to have hope in the future. You'd never get out of bed if you didn't," Mills said. "It's always going to be next better next year, right? We're going to get better prices. We're going to have better profitability. Everything is going to get better next year. That's how it works for farmers.

"You can't do this job if you don't have hope in the future," Mills said.

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