CUBA, Mo. — Mental health is not equal to mental illness.
“I believe to take this discussion to the next level, we must understand this crucial point,” said Jason Medows, a pharmacist and host of the Ag State of Mind podcast.
“Mental health is not something you either have or don’t. It’s something that exists on a spectrum and something each one of us needs to pay attention to,” said Medows in a presentation during the Women in Agriculture Conference, sponsored by the county Farm Bureaus in northwestern Illinois.
It is typical for all patients to get their blood pressure checked when they go to a doctor’s office.
“It’s time for us to treat mental health in the same way,” said Medows, who also operates a 140-head cow/calf operation.
After graduating from St. Louis College of Pharmacy with a Doctor of Pharmacy professional degree, Medows moved back to Crawford County, where he grew up to work in a local hospital.
“Around 2018, I began to find mental health was something I was very interested in from a medical and personal point of view,” he explained about why he decided to start his podcast in 2019.
“As an agricultural producer I have firsthand knowledge of the constant battle farmers across our world face every day,” he said. “I’ve had my own battle with mental health because for a long time I let my anxiety become something that was crippling and a lot of the anxiety stemmed from the pressure I faced in my cattle operation.”
One of the factors that impacts mental health for farmers is the isolation. According to an analysis by a professor at Brigham Young University, Medows said, a lack of social connection heightens the health risk as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having an alcohol use disorder.
“Also, social isolation is twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity,” he said.
Medows is quite uneasy about this, especially with the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Isolated farmers often find a much-needed connection at ball games, school functions, holidays and ag conventions, so with those now taken away, even temporally, I’m very concerned with the long-term effect on our producers,” he said.
The misunderstanding of the lifestyle can be stressful to farmers.
“I feel this has really been brought into focus over the last few years,” Medows said. “There is such a disconnect between consumers and producers and that it is bound to cause stress.”
Medows often compares himself to family members, neighbors and friends.
“Now, thanks to social media, I’m comparing myself even to people I don’t know in different parts of the country,” he said.
At the same time, Medows said, he is a huge fan of social media.
“I would likely not be talking to you today without the connections I’ve made over social media,” Medows said.
“Unfortunately, there’s one thing that social media is lacking and that’s context,” he said. “We cannot look upon any situation that is not our own without proper context.”
Cattlemen often worry about how their cattle measure up to their neighbors’ or friends’ cattle and a common topic of discussion is the price they sold their calves for, Medows said.
“Comparing ourselves to others is an exercise in futility,” Medows said.
“When we focus on how good we perceive others have it, we lose all opportunity for joy in our own lives,” he said. “When we focus on the joys in others’ lives instead of ours, we lose the growth mindset we should be trying to achieve.”
There’s an independent spirit among farmers that is second to none, Medows said.
“We don’t want to lose that, but unfortunately that independent spirit does not allow for outside help very often even when it is really needed,” he said.
Exercise is the one thing that has helped Medows the most in his journey to improve his mental health.
“I know the barriers of time, already working hard or injury because I’ve used all these excuses in the past,” he said. “However, I’m living proof they can be overcome and if I can make exercise a priority, anybody can.”
Medows works 40 hours off farm, runs a 140-head cow/calf operation and operates his podcast, plus he and his wife, Keri, are parents to four boys.
“I manage to exercise 50 to 90 minutes per day, five to six days a week,” he said.
Although, Medows said, it did not start this way.
“It began as 30 to 40 minutes per day, three days a week and then I made small steps to get from where I began to where I am now,” he said. “I fit my workouts in by waking up at 4 a.m. to make sure it gets done because there is too much competing for my time during the other hours of the day.”
Sometimes the cattleman needs to put his farm work ahead of his exercise routine.
“During the polar vortex of 2021, we had two weeks of snow and ice, plus below freezing temperatures, so I didn’t do my normal exercise,” Medows said. “But I cut lots of ice and waded through a lot of snow, so I understand that I need to pivot from time to time and allow myself grace when things don’t go according to plan.”
Journaling and reading inspirational books and applying them to his life also has helped Medows develop tactics to improve his mental health.
“Writing down the things that bother me has been key to getting over my troubles,” Medows said.
“When I put my thoughts into words, that helps me see my problems aren’t that big of a deal or it allows me to come up with solutions,” he said. “Either way it helps me sort out the problems that would be left unattended to otherwise.”
Medows also stressed the value of taking time away from the farm.
“When nothing seems to be working, it may be time for a break and that can be five minutes, five hours or five days,” he said. “When stress seems to be at its pinnacle, it’s best to step away and for Keri and I we make it a priority to get away two times per year for at least a few days.”
There are many sources available for information about mental health. Medows highlighted the following groups:
• Do More Agriculture Foundation — www.domore.ag.
• AgriSafe Network — www.agrisafe.org.
• National Alliance on Mental Illness — www.nami.org.
To listen to podcasts by Medows, go to www.agstateofmind.com.