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Rural stress: Why you(th)?

By Aly Kloeckner

Ice on tree branch in winter
Bend, don’t break. You may have heard this phrase lately in reference to rural stress. Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) released funds to work directly with rural communities on farm stress and rural mental health throughout the United States. Tackling the issue from all sides is important. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) “Bend, Don’t Break” initiative is partnering with University of Minnesota Extension and a host of other organizations to advance work in communities affected by rural stress and promote mental health and wellness at all ages. 

So what is rural stress and why are rural communities affected? 

Rural communities and families are disproportionately affected by a range of stressors including a volatile agricultural economy, population loss, healthcare and daycare shortages, and isolation. These can increase risks from obesity, depression and opioid addiction to suicide and interpersonal violence. 

Why is this important to youth workers? 

Addressing cumulative rural and farm stress cannot ignore young people who are more aware of and impacted by family stress than we sometimes imagine. They are worried about their parents, anxious about family finances and health, and unsure of their own future livelihoods. Community members, youth workers and caring adults must be equipped to meet the needs of these young people by recognizing the signs of stress and having the knowledge and skills to support them.

While stress can be harmful, it is also important to see opportunity in change. Resilience is the ability to recover from or adapt to adversity and significant stressors. Youth development programs and professionals can help youth build resiliency and the skills needed to better face daily challenges. 

This is where the ‘Bend, Don’t Break’ initiative is in action; boots on the ground in our youth programs, teaching and enhancing resilience and coping skills to youth, improving day camp curriculums, and fostering peer to peer conversations around rural stress. We are empowering youth and training volunteers and members of our communities to recognize stress and signs of mental health challenges in youth and connecting them to resources or services to continue their learning and support their mental wellbeing. 

How can you help? 

Remember that children and teens are aware of changing family dynamics due to financial and farm stress. As caring adults it is important to acknowledge these stressors, instead of hiding them from the youth. This creates an opportunity for us to model healthy coping mechanisms. For example, share how when you feel stressed you practice self-care (go for a walk, talk with a friend, take a bath). Perhaps what’s most important is to give our youth time and space to be kids and open up to us when they’re ready. You never know when you might be the caring adult they decide they want to have a conversation with. You should be ready when that day comes, a great place to start is Trish Sheehan’s blog article from 2019, “How to help stressed-out youth cope.” or checking out the Youth in Ag podcast series. Active listening and an emphasis on empathy and not fixing are a great place to start. 

This isn’t the end, this is a start. We’re taking steps to implement systemic change in our communities to increase resiliency in the next generation of rural community leaders - our youth. 

Where do you see parallels in this work in more urban or suburban communities? What differences in youth mental health resource availability do you see from community to community? How can farm parents or caregivers talk with youth about experiencing and managing mental health, stress, difficulty, and adversity?

-- Aly Kloeckner, Extension educator

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  1. Thank you Ali, this is a topic that rural MN can get behind and work on, so many other -isms that were are asked to focus on, this one is where our attention needs to be.


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