by Tamara Scully
Anyone operating a family business knows that work-related stress and family concerns all too often become combined. Leaving work-related stress at the front door isn’t as easy when your home life and your work life are integrated. And farmers often live and work on the same property — while performing a job that requires more than a nine-to-five obligation — and can’t ever really leave work behind.
Farming involves many factors which are not within a farmer’s control, and is physically a dangerous occupation. Its stressors can readily become cumulative.
In a recent Extension webinar, https://tinyurl.com/y7d2bjvk , Andrea Bjornestad, South Dakota Extension Specialist, discussed the results of a pilot study which focused on better understanding depression in farmers. The small study of 185 farmers, approximately two-thirds male, indicated a rate of depression in the population to be 9.3 percent.
When scored on individual traits which can indicate a high risk for depression — trouble sleeping, low spirits or sadness, feeling subdued or slow, or lacking in energy or strength — results indicated that more than half of the respondents were positive for those traits at least some of the time. Most alarmingly, more than 12 percent felt that life was not worth living at times.
Those with stronger support systems from family, friends or community showed a significant decline in traits related to depression. When asked who they would be willing to turn to for support, family ranked first at 37 percent, while friends were the next likely choice for almost 30 percent of the respondents. Five percent would consider speaking to a mental health professional.
“That mental health stigma is very much apparent,” in the farming community, Bjornestad said. “A negative stigma exists regarding mental health issues.”
Farmers can benefit from understanding that mental health is not the same as mental illness. Mental health is a state of mind that is impacted by physical and social factors. Proper sleep and nutrition, involvement in hobbies or activities that are enjoyable, physical exercise and socialization all promote mental health. Communicating with others who may be going through similar external stressors, such as speaking to other farmers at agricultural meetings, can provide farmers with a healthy outlet for coping with stressors.
Physically, stress can cause increased blood pressure, headaches, fatigue, and increased symptoms of chronic pain. By emphasizing the relationship between physical and mental wellness, the farming community may begin to accept that asking for assistance for depression and stress related symptoms isn’t a sign of weaknesses, but rather is the same as seeking help for diabetes or other conditions.
“Mental health is a state of well-being. I approach it from an overall health and wellness standpoint,” Bjornestad said.
Because home and business finances, relationships and responsibilities are all tightly woven in agriculture, a problem in one arena impacts many other aspects of life. This often exacerbates stress and depressive symptoms in the farming population.
Depression takes a toll on the body, makes daily tasks more difficult to perform, and impacts decision-making abilities. Family members, friends and others may recognize changes in mood, shortness of temper, a change in performance with farm tasks or management responsibilities, lack of concentration, loss of energy or motivation, or an increase in injuries and accidents while on the job. Those under chronic stress may have an exacerbation of physical illness, such as diabetes, arthritis, asthma, or gastrointestinal concerns. There may be noticeable weight changes.
A person struggling with feelings of depression or of overwhelming stress may become disheveled, have a pattern of negative thinking, lose hope, stop participating in activities they enjoy, make negative self-statements and may even talk about dying. They may give items away, make statements about not being around anymore, may attempt to self-medicate using alcohol or drugs, show signs of increased anxiety or helplessness or withdraw from personal contact.
The Center for Diseases Control released a study in 2016, which showed that, from 2000 to 2012 “persons working in the farming, fishing, and forestry group had the highest rate of suicide overall (84.5 per 100,000 population) and among males (90.5).”
The next highest occupational group was construction workers, with a rate of suicide at 53.5 per 100,000 population, well below that rate for those in farming, fishing and forestry.
Farming can be an isolating career. It can also attract loners, or those individuals who naturally prefer to work independently. At times, farming can involve long periods of time without interaction with others. And, as farmers and farm workers are a mere two percent of the population, agriculture can be a lonely and misunderstood pursuit.
Fluctuating markets, uncontrollable weather, crop failures and rising costs of production are outside of an individual’s control. Farming is an occupation where many factors are not controllable, and this uncertainty adds to feelings of helplessness. Long hours, no vacations or sick time and lack of money, particularly at certain times of the year, all add to the stress levels.
Family or service providers — feed, seed or equipment dealers, milk haulers or even Extension agents — who interact with farmers are often the primary contacts farmers may have on a regular basis. Knowing what to do if warning signs of exacerbated stress levels, depression or possible suicidal ideation are present, can be crucial.
Having someone listen and empathize is often a first step towards receiving help. Having feelings and thoughts acknowledged — without judgment — can be a window to feeling less powerless. Once a person’s perspective is understood, and accepted, they often feel more able to refocus on solutions and consider other alternatives, making worsening depression and — potentially — suicide less appealing as options.
In Vermont, Farm First is an employee assistance program dedicated exclusively to farm families. The organization offers free, confidential assessment, counseling and referral. Farm First counselors are trained in agricultural medicine, and behavioral health, and understand the unique risks and circumstances associated with farming, making the range of services they can provide to the farming community extensive. From crisis intervention to assistance with problems such as boundary disputes or the need for help on the farm due to illness, injury or family circumstance, they are able to assess the problem and implement solutions. www.farmfirst.org
University of Minnesota Extension has publications dedicated to assessing farm-related stress symptoms, examining healthy coping mechanisms, and recognizing warning signs that indicate depression or stress has become a serious concern, www.extension.umn.edu.
FarmAid also offers a hotline for farmers needing resources and referral, 800-FARM-AID. Nationwide suicide hotlines are available, 800-SUICIDE, with statewide lists at http://suicidehotlines.net/.
Whether stress and depression are due to farm-related concerns or non-farm personal issues, members of the farming community undoubtedly are unique in their work/life balance and family business concerns. Speaking to a person who understands agricultural realities can make things a bit less isolating. The farming community nationwide is working together to prevent another farming community tragedy: a farmer’s suicide.