Impact Collaborative Program Team, Wellness in Tough Times, responds to mental health needs for Farmers & Ranchers across Nebraska

“Addressing mental health needs, particularly for rural Nebraskans, is one of our strategic priorities. We formed this team as part of a larger initiative to address this need. We also have a focus at UNL on increasing innovation and the opportunity to work with eXtension and the Impact Collaborative helps reinforce that focus. A number of Extension professionals from our institution have been involved with the Impact Collaborative, helping catalyze innovation across our system. The most recent Impact Collaborative Summit was a great opportunity for this new team to dive deep into their program planning, evaluate their partnership development strategy alongside the resources eXtension brought to the table, and return to UNL with a program ready to move forward to make a positive impact in our local communities.” – Chuck Hibberd, Dean and Director for Cooperative Extension at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 

Natural disasters in the Spring of 2019 such as flooding, coupled with economic conditions over the last several years, has severely impacted the lives of farmers and ranchers in Nebraska. 83 out of 93 counties were declared as disaster areas and over 500,000 acres and 3400 homes were damaged or condemned. While the attention about recovery efforts often focuses on saving farms, crop, and product, there is an urgent need to address the mental stress that farmers and ranchers face during critical times.

Wellness in Tough Times, a team of Extension professionals from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension, is working towards implementing a program to address this critical need. Their project aims to help rural families create and maintain connections for mental wellness, help local communities through supporting farming and ranching families to address mental wellness, and identify meaningful and impactful ways to create communities of care to support mental wellness. 

The team’s individual backgrounds are diverse and includes Susan Harris-Broomfield, Extension Educator – Rural Health, Wellness, and Safety; Soni Cochran, Extension Associate; Robert Tigner, Agricultural Systems Economist; Brandy VanDeWalle, Extension Educator; and Michelle Krehbiel, Youth Development Specialist/Associate Professor. 

The team formed in early 2019 at the request of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Extension leadership. Rural mental health is one of the institution’s strategic priorities. 

Reinforcing Program Planning at the Impact Collaborative Summit

The team took advantage of the opportunity to attend eXtension’s Impact Collaborative Summit as a way of bringing together their ideas and creating a pathway forward for this critical program. The Impact Collaborative is a program that was created by eXtension to help Extension professionals find more innovative ways to generate a visible, measurable, local impact. It achieves this through offering professional development opportunities to Extension professionals both virtually and face-to-face, connecting Extension professionals with non-traditional partners for strategic support and new capacity, and equipping Extension professionals with new skills, tools, and resources to help increase innovation in their daily work. 

Even before the disastrous blizzard and flooding issues in our state, we knew there was a need to help rural families create and maintain connections for mental wellness, reduce stigma related to mental wellness, and help communities in supporting farming/ranching families to address mental wellness.  Now, that issue is compounded by income and home losses around the state. We have and will have some depressed and distressed folks who need to know about available resources and coping skills,” says Harris-Broomfield, team leader for the Wellness in Tough Times team. 

At the Impact Collaborative Summit, the team had the opportunity to work closely on their project with access to key resources assembled by eXtension. The team was provided a coach from the Impact Collaborative’s network of Innovation Facilitators, an opportunity to access a graphic artist and a concept-mapping coach to help visualize, connect, and identify gaps in their project planning, and several Key Informants on staff with subject-matter-expertise in specialized areas.

“I love how it brought us together and made us think about this for three days. We had no distractions, only input and help from our coaches and from other teams,” said Harris-Broomfield.  

When asked about what specific activities from the Impact Collaborative Summit that were most helpful, Harris-Broomfield stated, “the visualization stations were very helpful; there were those of us on the teams who were able to see something different when we went through this process. It was great that the Impact Collaborative had that ability to cater to each of our minds,” said Harris-Broomfield.

During the Impact Collaborative Summit, the teams spent an evening sharing their programs and projects with other teams during a poster session. The purpose of this was for teams to gain more insights from the expertise in the room, and strengthen their project and program planning. 

“The poster session was really valuable, and was an opportunity to get input from other professionals that helped me formulate some different plans I could bring back to my team. We would also bring individuals over from other teams to talk to us about their experience, which helped improve our planning,” says Harris-Broomfield.  

The culminating event of the Impact Collaborative Summit was an opportunity for teams to present their projects and programs to a panel of Extension leaders and external partners at a “LaunchFest.” Teams participating in the LaunchFest not only gain valuable feedback from the panel and their peers across Extension, but teams that are most-ready to implement their projects and programs have the chance to secure an opportunity for funding. As a result of their presentation at the LaunchFest, the Wellness in Tough Times team received a pre-approved application for a $5000 grant funded by eXtension to move their project towards implementation. 

Taking The Program to the Next Level

The team is now moving forward to get their project off the ground. The team meets virtually once per month to discuss priorities and actions as necessary and reports monthly to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Rural Family Stress and Wellness work group, consisting of about 22 members including Extension employees and other partners across Nebraska. 

They are first performing an internal needs assessment with colleagues, then assessing the needs in each community, using a variety of techniques to ensure maximum reach. This includes focus groups to find appropriate partners in each community, visits at well-attended rural events, and finding local champions to start the conversation of mental health.  Following that will be educating Extension staff and activating a powerful wellness campaign. Their partners will include all University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educators and staff, various members of the established work group hosted by Nebraska Extension, and members from mental health positions around the state. Also partnering is the University of Nebraska Medical Center, UNMC, Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, local media, Women In Agriculture organizers, Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health, and AgrAbility. The team plans to pursue other potential partnership opportunities. 

The $5000 grant from eXtension will help fund travel for face-to-face meetings and focus groups, hire a data gathering system, and fund an interactive/educational booth activity to be used at farm-related events throughout the state such as Husker Harvest Days and the Nebraska State Fair in August and September.

Reflecting upon her experience with the Impact Collaborative, Harris-Broomfield shared that it was inspiring and helpful. It’s something that I don’t think we would have ever accomplished on our own as just five people sitting in a room; we would have had a different outcome. I feel that the Impact Collaborative has the right experience in this, and it’s obvious that they’ve led teams through this before.”

About the eXtension Foundation

The eXtension Foundation is a membership-based non-profit designed to be the engine fueling U.S. Cooperative Extension’s advancement in making a more visible and measurable impact in support of education outreach from land-grant universities/colleges located in every state and territory. eXtension provides an array of opportunities for Extension professionals that foster innovation creation, the adoption of innovations at member institutions, and increased impact of Extension programs.