Caring, Noticing, and Asking: Helping a Partner in Distress
It is a fact that agricultural producers are under a tremendous amount of stress (Kroll, 2022). Between managing livestock, maintaining equipment, harvesting crops, paying off loans, and planning for the future, there is more than enough stress to overwhelm anyone, at least occasionally. Add to that the problems of drought, unpredictable weather, increased costs of feed and fertilizer, and negative public perception (see Ag Wellness Podcast Episode 4), and it is clear to see why many agricultural producers are feeling burnt out, overwhelmed, and just plain tired.
If you are reading this, it may be because your partner is currently feeling distressed, or you may be planning for what to do if they ever reach that level. Whatever your situation, you are not alone. Here are some simple steps you can take to support your partner and help them through this time.
The first step in supporting your partner is to show that you care about them and to let them know that you are there for support. What this looks like can differ from person to person, but being there, listening, and supportive touch are often helpful. Touch is a powerful way to communicate support and can change the way the brain is responding to a stressful situation (Dreisoerner et al., 2021). If your partner is too overwhelmed to talk, your supportive presence can still help them to manage their distress better (Duschek et al., 2019).
If your partner is willing, you can have a stress-reducing conversation [insert link to stress-reducing conversation blog post] which could help you unite as a team in responding to stress. Also, you could practice active, attentive listening (Bodenmann et al., 2018), by saying things like, “I know it’s hard for you to talk about this. Thank you for opening up.” You might also ask questions such as, “I would love to help you; what do you need from me right now?” or “What is the hardest part of this for you?”
The second step in supporting your partner is to notice changes in their behavior that could signal a more serious mental health concern. One-time behaviors that are different from normal actions aren’t too concerning. But if their routines, leisure activities, or sleep patterns are very different this could be cause for concern. Examples of concerning changes to be aware of include an increase in the quantity or frequency of alcohol use, sleeping later than usual or not sleeping at all, and not engaging in activities they used to find enjoyable. This resource, created by the National Institute on Mental Illness (NAMI), can help you identify whether a behavior is a potential warning sign of more serious concerns. You don’t need all the information about specific mental health concerns, but noticing that they may need more support is very important when considering next steps.
The third step in supporting your partner is to ask them, at an appropriate time and place, how they are really doing and what you can do to help them. For many people, this conversation may be best if it occurs one-on-one so that your partner can be open about whatever they are experiencing. In different situations, people prefer different types of support (Biggs et al., 2017). Your partner may need you to listen, or to give them a hug, or to help them brainstorm a solution; by asking them, you can respond in the way they need in this specific moment.
If your partner’s distress doesn’t seem to lessen after talking openly, it is essential that you ask them if they are considering hurting themselves or someone else (National Institute of Mental Health, n.d.). Although this may be uncomfortable, asking about suicide does not increase the likelihood that someone will attempt to end their life, and may actually reduce their distress and thoughts of suicide (Polihronis et al., 2020). If your loved one says that they are considering ending their life, stay with them, and help them get the appropriate support they need. If you are uncertain whether you need to intervene, this resource created by North Dakota State University Extension can help inform your choices. You can also learn more about how to recognize signs, symptoms, and help others by taking the Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Course.
Caring for a partner who is struggling can be difficult for you, too. This is especially true if you are worried about their safety. Feelings of anxiety, powerlessness, or hopelessness are all common responses. Take a deep breath and make room for these emotions [insert link to cultivating acceptance blog post] as indicators of how much you care (Harris, 2019; Hayes, 2019). It is also important to take a step back [insert link to unhooking blog post] from unhelpful thoughts, such as “They should be able to handle this,” or “I am responsible for their problems.” When you get wrapped up in these thoughts, they can move you away from being helpful to your partner. Instead, try taking a step back by labeling thinking as thinking or thanking your mind for reminding you of things you care about.
Most importantly, tune in to your values [insert link to values blog post], especially those around caring/self-caring, contribution, and compassion (Harris, 2009). Doing so can help you connect with who you want to be, even in difficult situations, and act as a compass to guide you as you navigate this situation.
When stress reaches harmful levels, our partners can become overwhelmed. We can support them as we communicate caring, notice warning signs, and ask how we can help and whether they are safe. As you support your partner, the skills of taking a step back from thoughts, acceptance, and tuning in to values can enable you to navigate your own difficult experiences well.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988
Utah Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
SafeUT: Call or text 833-372-3388
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6864)
- Biggs, A., Brough, P., & Drummond, S. (2017). Lazarus and Folkman’s psychological stress and coping theory. In Cary L. Cooper & James Campbell Quick (eds.), The Handbook of Stress and Health (pp. 349–364). John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118993811.ch21
- Bodenmann, G., Nussbeck, F., Bradbury, T., & Kuhn, R. (2018). The power of listening: Lending an ear to the partner during dyadic coping conversations. Journal of Family Psychology, 32. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000421
- Dreisoerner, A., Junker, N. M., Schlotz, W., Heimrich, J., Bloemeke, S., Ditzen, B., & van Dick, R. (2021). Self-soothing touch and being hugged reduce cortisol responses to stress: A randomized controlled trial on stress, physical touch, and social identity. Comprehensive Psychoneuroendocrinology, 8, 100091. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpnec.2021.100091
- Duschek, S., Nassauer, L., Montoro, C. I., Bair, A., & Montoya, P. (2019). Dispositional empathy is associated with experimental pain reduction during provision of social support by romantic partners. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 20(1), 205–209. https://doi.org/10.1515/sjpain-2019-0025
- Harris, R. (2019). ACT made simple: an easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy (2nd ed.). New Harbinger Publications.
- Harris, R., (2009). ACT with love: Stop struggling, reconcile differences, and strengthen your relationship with acceptance and commitment therapy. New Harbinger.
- Hayes, S. (2019). A liberated mind: How to pivot toward what matters. Avery.
- Kroll, M. M. (2022). Understanding farm stress: Farmers experience unique stress and mental health challenges due to their occupation. University of New Hampshire Extension. https://extension.unh.edu/blog/2022/04/understanding-farm-stress
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2018). Navigating a mental health crisis. https://www.nami.org/Support-Education/Publications-Reports/Guides/Navigating-a-Mental-Health-Crisis
- National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions about suicide. Mental Health Information. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-faq
- North Dakota State University Extension. (2016). Responding to distressed people. https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/publications/kids-family/responding-to-distressed-people
- Polihronis, C., Cloutier, P., Kaur, J., Skinner, R., & Cappelli, M. (2020). What’s the harm in asking? A systematic review and meta-analysis on the risks of asking about suicide-related behaviors and self-harm with quality appraisal. Archives of Suicide Research, 0(0), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/13811118.2020.1793857