On Wednesday, May 19th, over a dozen Cooperative Extension professionals across the nation gathered in a Connect Extension chat to discuss disaster response and mental wellness in our work. The main themes interrogated throughout the hour were: mental wellness, disasters*, disaster recovery, and community interaction within those sectors. In this discussion, we wanted to learn how branches of Extension approach mental wellness in their communities and if they find themselves in disaster response roles due to the resource-oriented nature of Extension work. If you would like to read the conversation directly, the archived chat can be found here.
Nebraska Extension’s Wellness in Tough Times team hosted this event to inspire a larger conversation surrounding Extension’s role in mental wellness programming and promoting resilience following disasters. This is an important topic to the team because the Wellness in Tough Times project is focused on providing stress-reducing resources to rural Nebraskans. Its inception came about in response to disastrous flooding in 2019 that further harmed Nebraskans already struggling with a downturn in the agricultural economy. Since then, the project has been evolved by COVID-19, pivoting to also address various logistical and emotional effects that the pandemic has had on individuals. In all, Wellness in Tough Times strives to start conversations about rural health and mental wellness to create stronger, more resilient communities.
Throughout the course of the chat, we learned that there is a disparity between Extension professionals when it comes to mental wellness knowledge and training. Most are very interested in providing resources by amplifying the voices of professional mental health providers, adding mental wellness components to existing programs, and supporting programming on mental wellness for constituents, but many feel ill-prepared. There are often barriers to funding and support for mental wellness resources, but this may change due to the COVID-19 pandemic, where mental wellness has been brought to the forefront of mainstream wellness conversations. More formal training on mental wellness and disaster response would make Extension professionals confident in their ability to take on roles within these sectors without risking compassion fatigue and undue stress.
Currently among the chat participants, mental wellness events are not commonly requested by constituents, but are sorely needed and well-attended when offered. This is likely due to the stigma that surrounds asking for mental wellness resources. Conversations around such resources are increasing and we may be able to meet this demand with trauma informed practices in community engagement, more mental health resources, and fully trained Extension professionals that can confidently offer support if a disaster strikes their community.
*Disasters are defined as any significant environmental or life change that disrupts a person’s way of life and daily patterns. They are often thought of as a severe weather event, yet they can be any type of disruption.
The archived “Extension’s Role in Disaster Response and Mental Health” chat can be found here.
For more information on Nebraska Extension’s Wellness in Tough Times project, visit https://ruralwellness.unl.edu/wellness-tough-times.
Photo Credit: Soni Cochran, 2004.