While farmers and their wives at the front of the room took turns talking about the economic stresses wrenching at families, a latecomer sat in a back row, listening quietly.

Finally, the man in the back could take no more. He had to talk. He was an official from a local farm lending association -- a friend of many of the front-row families -- and he wanted to talk about how the debt crisis in rural America was changing his life.

He was hurt because friends with whom he had done business for years had stopped talking to him. He was depressed because apparently solvent farmers had to be told they could get no more loans. He and his family were shaken by ominous phone calls at night that produced only hangup clicks in a vacant earpiece.

The point -- and it came home forcefully -- was that farmers are not the only ones suffering as farm debt presses down on communities. The banker, the merchant, the teacher, the extension agent suffer, too.

Missouri's farm debt totals $7 billion. University of Missouri studies indicate that about 16 percent of the state's farms are so heavily in debt that their survival is unlikely. Farm bankruptcies rose from 114 in 1981 to 535 last year. Tighter credit rules at commercial banks, a shortage of federal farm loan funds, a continuing drop in land values and low crop prices mean more trouble for other indebted farmers this year.

On another night, therapists from the Research Psychiatric Center in Kansas City came to talk to farm families about coping with the prospect of not receiving a spring planting loan or losing the farm to head-over-heels debt.

They needed assurance that today's problems were not necessarily of the farmers' making and that there would be life after farming. "We want to thank you for having us here again," one therapist said. "We've talked about how much you have taught us. You're an extremely important group of people, to yourselves, to your families, to the nation."

The remark seemed important, and it seemed to make an impression. Heads nodded in the audience, appreciative of the sincerity.

More and more across the Midwest, as farm debts put families in disarray and threaten to drive them off the land, meetings like this are becoming commonplace. Churches, farmer organizations, the Cooperative Extension Service, mental health groups and others are scrambling to meet the need.

Bob Kimmis, a Livingston County farmer, has been a force in this area, prodding farmers to go to meetings and talk about their problems. "We're getting no loan money this year and we've got no place to go," Kimmis said. "This is the tension of it. Basically, we go to meetings because it relieves the tension."

Linda Kimmis, his wife, added: "This place should have been full tonight, but you can see . . . maybe 15 or 20 showed up."

Bob Kimmis: "The trouble is getting the ones who need the help. The stress doesn't end. It keeps going on. We're trying to get people to come in before it hits them. We're trying to have rap sessions every two weeks, just so people can come out and share their problems. That is a big help."

Mike Robeck of the North Central Missouri Mental Health Center at Trenton expressed a similar concern. "We had a family stress workshop a few weeks ago and nobody came. I mean, we had 30 or 35 people, but we easily could have handled 100," he said.

Another challenge is breaking the talk barrier. "If you're talking about someone out on the north 40 who is dealing with the guilt of losing a third-generation farm, the pride is too much to overcome and the idea that they're going to talk about it is not going to help," Robeck said.

Robeck started a stress-management workshop for farmers two years ago in Putnam County. It has forced troubled farmers to come out of the closet, he said, but he worries about what his clients report.

Robeck continued: "The real nuts and bolts that we can give these people is communications. The most important thing for them is to come out of these debt problems with their families intact. That's why communications is so important. The kids, for example, are so affected -- they feel all the tension at home and they don't know the cause of it.