Overpowering stress and anxiety can happen to anyone.  When faced with unwanted stressors, such as a financial downturn or unexpected health issues, we become alarmed and may need behavioral health assistance, especially when the things that stress us occur simultaneously and are beyond our control. Given the historic unemployment in our country today, more people are experiencing stress and anxiety than ever before.

One brief and powerfully uplifting film illustrates the struggles of Adam and Elicia Moennich, an Iowa farm couple with two children, as they come to terms with overwhelming stress.  Their story in “Heartland,” a film short for TakeCare, has meaning for everybody, regardless of where we live, or what we do for a living. TakeCare is a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films.

The Moennich family was struggling from a four-year downturn in the agricultural economy.  Loss of foreign markets for farm products, tariffs on agricultural exports, and inclement weather made farming all the more difficult.  The Moennich couple and Adam’s father raise crops, pigs, and cattle on their 1,300 acres of owned and rented farmland; Adam runs a trucking business, and performs custom haying; Elicia contributes income and health insurance from her employment at a local farm cooperative.  Despite their diversified sources of income, the farming operation was falling even further behind in paying debts.

Like many distressed people – especially men, Adam wanted to “power through” the tough times.  He found himself closing off communication with Elicia and turning to beer for relief when consumed by intrusive thoughts of failure. He considered desperate solutions – even suicide.  Elicia contacted me for advice. Because I live some 200 miles from the Moennich family, I suggested she find a professional counselor who understands agriculture as well as behavioral health.  As Elicia benefitted from counseling, Adam joined her.  Learning how to open up, to express dangerous feelings and uncertainty in safe ways, and to accept professional assistance took great courage.  They discovered that seeking assistance is a strength, not a weakness.

The Moennich family kept in touch with me and invited me to join them when they agreed to share their story with TakeCare so that others might benefit from their experiences.  “Heartland” illustrates key understandings they have achieved and which I have found essential from 40 years of research and assisting highly distressed people as a licensed psychologist.  Being a farmer myself has made me a better psychologist, and being a psychologist has made me a better farmer. Here are the key learnings to TakeCare:

Accepting our Vulnerability

This provides opportunities to make ourselves better people by learning how to manage our behavior.  Yes, it’s a hurdle to overcome and a risk to expose what we most want to hide, but it’s impossible to have meaningful and authentic relationships with the closest people in our lives without acknowledging our insecurities and sharing our pain. 

Talking or Writing About our Feelings

This can open doors to finding solutions.  Adam found the courage to write a three-page letter to Elicia when he was most troubled that prompted Elicia to reach out for professional help.  She was feeling shut out and at wit’s end herself.  As Elicia gained perspective in counseling, she asked Adam to join her.  Journaling is another way to say in print what is difficult to express verbally. Adam poured out his drastic worries in his letter. It probably saved their marriage and was his first step toward healing.

Building a support network

A network is another important step to finding solutions. Adam and Elicia had frank conversations with Adam’s father, and their two boys who are approaching their teen years.  Adam met with bank officers and land lords to figure out a business plan that could work financially for the benefit of all.  This approach demonstrated the principle that bringing together a team of trusted people with varying types of expertise is more likely to lead to optimal decisions than by handling problems alone.

Celebrating the good, as well as dealing with the bad

This can help reset our outlooks. The Moennich family shared their progress in a backyard cook-out with friends, neighbors, family and others they valued.  Although the adversities of farming haven’t disappeared, it helps everyone who “is in it together” to look out for one another.

It was an honor to have a small role in assisting the Moennich family.  I think this film is a “must-see” for everyone dealing with uncertainties they can’t control.

Dr. Mike Rosmann is an Iowa farmer, a clinical psychologist, author, and a medical advisor for TakeCare, a project of The Healthy US Collaborative.