KEARNEY — How are you doing? What’s going on?
Those simple questions have great value when they’re asked by a concerned neighbor during times of trauma — floods, other natural disasters, low commodity prices, illness, loss of a family member or other hardship.
Asking them also might be the first critical step to save a life.
A new Neighbor-to-Neighbor task force is educating Buffalo County residents about suicide risk factors and warning signs, and how to begin conversations of concern.
“The goal is to pay attention to our neighbors, listen, ask questions and offer help, whatever that might look like,” said Buffalo County Extension Educator Kerry Elsen, whether it’s offering an extra pair of hands for a farm job, giving emotional support or helping to access professional help.
The task force has focused on distributing an information sheet. Copies were attached to 4-H livestock event programs at the county fair, sent in mass mailings and to area media, posted on social media and distributed to people in agriculture organizations and businesses who have a lot of direct contact with farmers, ranchers and others in rural communities.
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Neighbor-to-Neighbor partners include Buffalo County Farm Bureau, Nebraska Extension in Buffalo County, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, Farm Credit Services of America, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Marshall Land Brokers and Auctioneers, Region 3 Behavioral Health Services and Buffalo County Community Partners.
This week and through Tuesday, they are hosting free barbecues in Buffalo County towns that include a presentation by Michelle Kohmetscher of Blue Hill, a certified mental health first aid instructor.
At the Extension building in Kearney Thursday night, she said suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in Nebraska. At the highest risk are working men ages 35-64.
The risk also is higher in agriculture than for most other occupations.
“Trauma can be anything,” Kohmetscher said. “... What can be traumatic for one person is different for another person and people deal with trauma differently.”
“We need to be a thermometer for our neighbor,” she added, because some people struggle more than others. Also, there are highs and lows even after the healing process has begun.
The struggle of one or several neighbors can have ripple effects throughout rural communities. Kohmetscher learned that seven years ago when four people died in a truck-Blue Hill school bus accident near her home.
A first step to healing was a community gathering at a church at which people talked about those losses. “That was hard, but it also was very healing,” she said.
A neighbor asking questions also can be healing, Kohmetscher said, especially in rural communities where people often are reluctant to seek help for depression or other mental illness and where access to such care may be limited.
“What do we have?” she said about such circumstances. “We have each other.”
Kohmetscher said all humans have mental health issues sometimes because there are things that make us sad. However, a problem that affects people’s ability to work, changes relationships or limits their ability to enjoy life may be the sign of a more serious mental illness, which makes talking about it and catching it early so important.
Kohmetscher said one in 100 women and seven in 100 men diagnosed with depression have attempted suicide.
“A lot of people feel uncomfortable asking the questions,” she said, because some believe the myth that asking can put the idea into someone’s head. “... It never hurts to ask questions.”
“Suicide is not the problem. It’s the only solution to a perceived insolvable problem,” Kohmetscher added.
Elsen said the idea of a project to give people in rural communities information to help them help their neighbors came from an office conversation with fellow Buffalo County Extension Educator Carol Schwarz.
“We know the stress factors are higher than they have been previously,” Elsen said, because of this year’s floods and low crop prices, “and we want to do all we can to help prevent any additional issues. It’s how to be neighborly and, in general, we need to take care of each other.”
She added that helping can be as simple as asking people if they are OK. “These are things you can do individually. You don’t have to be an expert to reach out to people,” Elsen said.
Neighbor-to-Neighbor Task Force members plan to distribute more information in the future, but it’s too soon to know the details. They also hope their project will be of interest to people in other Nebraska counties.
Elsen said they know they’ll never have a clear measure of the project’s success.
Steve Wolfe is owner of Wolfen Dairy southwest of Kearney and president of Buffalo County Farm Bureau, which paid for the hamburgers, hot dogs and side dishes served at the community barbecues by Hot Meals USA.
“Suicide is a problem that goes unnoticed, particularly in rural communities and agriculture itself,” Wolfe said about why Farm Bureau is helping with Neighbor-to-Neighbor.
He agreed that measuring its success is impossible.
“We’ll never know,” he said, “but it’s a tremendous success if we reach one person who goes out and helps one person, and if we get one person to start that conversation.”