UK trains 1,000 Kentuckians in mental health awareness

UK is leading a grass-roots effort to help farm families recognize the signs of farmer stress and openly discuss mental health issues with their neighbors. Photo by Getty Images.

March 28, 2022 | By: Katie Pratt

As with any occupation, stress on the farm reveals itself in many ways. For the past two years, the University of Kentucky has been diligently working to help producers and farm families recognize the signs of a farmer in distress and openly discuss mental health resources with their neighbors. UK’s Southeast Center for Agricultural Health and Injury Prevention recently passed a major milestone−training 1,000 Kentuckians in their Question, Persuade and Refer program, Agricultural Community QPR for Farmers and Farm Families. 

"The amazing energy and work our 57 farm community members who are our Agricultural Community QPR trainers--from farmers and equipment dealers to teachers and healthcare workers--is a real testimony to how deeply they care about helping their neighbors,” said Joan Mazur, the program’s principal investigator and deputy director of the center. “In some ways it also shows that the community was aware of these issues, and QPR is a way to break the silence. QPR participants are trained how to have these difficult conversations with people who are in distress and get them the help they need." 

As in other parts of the United States, access to mental health services is lacking in areas of rural Kentucky. QPR is an opportunity to train ordinary citizens on ways to identify and help their neighbors who are mentally struggling. The center, housed in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, administers training to groups and individuals interested in raising awareness about rural mental health. The center is directed by Wayne Sanderson, UK professor in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering. 

The center began QPR training two years ago through funding from AgriSafe, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. The initial program trained 17 people to become certified QPR trainers. They took their skills and trained an additional 415 people in QPR through March 2021. From there, the program received funding from the Kentucky legislature which allowed an additional 40 people to become trained. To date, this funding has supported the training of an additional 591 people.  

“It really has been a collective effort. Everyone involved feels really passionate about this topic,” said Carolyn Oldham, QPR trainer and director of continuing education for the Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center, which is also run by Sanderson. “We see the stigmas surrounding mental health lessening and our grassroots conversations are really making a difference.” 

The opportunity to help their fellow farmers and reduce mental health stigmas was an opportunity that Kristie Guffey and Nick Roy could not pass up. Both have been instrumental to the program as QPR trainers.  

“Farmers are independent, resilient and talking about our problems is something we don’t do,” said Guffey, a lifelong farmer and assistant professor in the Murray State University Hutson School of Agriculture. “We need to be able to talk about our feelings and emotions and support each other. This program has been successful because we have given people permission to talk about their stresses and helped chip away at some of the mental health stigmas.” 

“Farming is so much more than a job to most people. It’s personal. It’s sentimental. It’s part of your family, and many farmers value their self-worth based on how successful the farm is. That can lead to a lot of stress,” said Roy, Adair County agriculture and natural resources extension agent. “What I would say to someone who was struggling has always been in the back of my mind. This program gave me the confidence and ability to talk about it.” 

The center plans to continue the momentum it has gained through these courses. QPR has been recently translated into Spanish, and the center is starting to work with the migrant community. The center is also working with fellow land-grant partner Kentucky State University to develop and test a prototype peer-to-peer mobile app offering mental health resources.  

The center is also expanding its reach to Kentucky tornado victims by funding and supporting a pilot project with McCracken County Extension. The Extension office will serve as a telehealth and mental health resources site through a partnership with Eastern Kentucky University’s Psychology’s Trauma and Suicide Prevention and Telepsychology Specialty clinics, directed by EKU psychology associate professor Theresa Botts.  

While McCracken County did not receive any damage from the Dec. 10 tornado outbreak, its neighboring counties did. The telehealth and mental health resources program will first be open to residents of and first responders in Graves, Marshall, Fulton and Hickman counties. This program is expected to begin in April with additional counties joining later. Residents and first responders will receive access to mental health trainings and resources on trauma-informed care, self-care and telehealth services offered by EKU psychology doctoral students, who are trained in rural mental health and the cultures of farming. 

“We know that the tornados were a generational traumatic event and only time will tell area residents’ true physical and mental scars from this experience,” said Samantha Anderson, McCracken County agriculture and natural resources extension agent. “The extension office is providing the place and space for folks who do not have reliable internet and need a quiet, private place to discuss their mental health needs.” 

Joan Mazur,; Carolyn Oldham,