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Rural background helps mental health expert connect with farmers

Kaitlyn Riley

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Getting to the root of mental health concerns in the community, Cynthie Christensen uses her farming background and extensive training as a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor to better serve rural residents.

Born and raised in Iowa, Christensen moved out to California for her husband’s job before returning to the Midwest. She had family in southeast Minnesota, and it made sense for her to come back home.

She bought a farm upon her return in the 80s and later purchased a second farm to live on.

“It just felt really good to be out in the rural community again next to my family,” Christensen said.

As a psychiatric nurse, she always valued the role of mental health in total health, which is why she returned to school to earn a master’s degree and become a therapist.

“It just feels really important to think about our mental health as a piece of our whole health,” Christensen said.

Her belief is that if someone is mentally healthy, they will likely be more physically healthy as well because they will be motivated to eat well, exercise, and take care of themselves.

She found farmers to be unique in terms of their mentality commenting on their resiliency, but also their desire for privacy. Christensen found it took a special understanding to provide mental health to a farm family.  

“There’s so much in farming that’s just, you feel it,” Christensen said. “I think if you don’t have any experience in understanding the relationship between a farmer and their land or their farm in their livestock, it’s difficult to connect. In therapy, it’s more about connecting with somebody than probably any really magical thing they’re going to say. It is whether you feel heard and whether they understand what you’re going through.”

She started her practice, Oak Ridge Teletherapy, with the goal of being able to provide therapy around the state of Minnesota through virtual platforms such as Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom.

“It’s so difficult for farmers to find therapists in the community that are familiar with agriculture, and it just gives me a broader range of who I can be helpful to,” she said.

Christensen acknowledged cost is often an issue, especially with farmers who have individual insurance plans.

“They have huge deductibles in order to be able to afford the healthcare that they’ve got,” she said. “I think that is a challenge, and I think it takes a lot of courage to reach out and ask for help.”

Her recommendation for anyone who may suspect a loved one is in need of mental health help is to try to connect.

“One of the most challenging things is that when you feel alone and you’re the only person who’s struggling,” Christensen said. “We do a lot of comparing on the farm. Sometimes you look at your neighbor and think, ‘they’re doing better than I am,’ and that can really be a lonely feeling. You think there’s something wrong with you that you’re not coping as well, which I think is really devastating.”

Speaking with family members, clergy, a physician, or anyone who can help create that connection can be invaluable. Christensen also recommended learning the signs or symptoms of someone struggling with stress such as loss of sleep, weight loss, self-isolation, or irritability.

Kaitlyn Riley’s passion for communications started on her family’s dairy farm in Gays Mills, Wis. Wanting to share agriculture’s story, she studied strategic communications and broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In college, she held officer positions with the Association of Women in Agriculture and Badger Dairy Club while volunteering as a news reporter for the college radio station. She also founded the university’s first agricultural radio talk show, AgChat. In her professional career, Kaitlyn has worked in radio, print and television news doing everything from covering local events to interviewing presidential candidates, and putting back on her barn boots to chat with farmers in the field. Today, Kaitlyn can be seen covering local stories that matter to you in the La Crosse area.