by Sally Colby
Andrea Bjornestad, extension mental health specialist and assistant professor at South Dakota State University, references an article in the British paper ‘The Guardian’ that addressed mental health issues in farmers. “Recent depression rates in agricultural workers have varied from 7.4 percent to 24 percent,” she said. “In 2016, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) listed agriculture as the occupational group with the highest rate of suicide overall. What’s concerning is that we have farmers with high depression rates and high suicide rates.”
The CDC report suggests possible causes for the high suicide rates among U.S. farmers, including social isolation, potential financial losses, and barriers to and unwillingness to seek mental health services. Studies also show that gender differences are present, with a higher suicide rate among rural males than rural females. In addition, agriculture continues to hold the highest numbers for mortality rates due to stress-related illnesses. “Our farmers experience ongoing stress,” said Bjornestad. “It’s current stress that has turned chronic, and chronic stress impacts physical wellness.”
Bjornestad says there’s stigma surrounding mental health issues in the rural community, and farmers tend to keep their personal issues within the family in order to protect their reputation in the farm community. “The impact of support for farmers during stressful times can’t be underestimated,” said Bjornestad, referencing studies on the topic of farm stress. “Most participants had family support, but those who suffered from depression lacked friendships.”
Since friendship is a critical factor in protecting against depression symptoms, Bjornestad suggests better communication within the ag community. “It’s important to promote effective communication with others and provide social support opportunities,” she said. “Whether it’s farmer appreciation days or coffee talks, we really have to reach rural individuals.”
In the studies, of those farmers who were struggling emotionally, some were willing to talk with family or friends, but only a small percentage were willing to speak with a counselor. “We really have to break down the stigma related to mental health in this population,” said Bjornestad. “When I’m working with farmers, I approach it from an overall health and wellness standpoint. Mental health is more than mental illness. What’s problematic is those two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. But they’re very different: mental health is more about your state of well-being, and mental illness is a diagnosable mental illness.”
There are some steps farm families can take to deal with stress, but it’s important that family members are aware of the stress and are willing to take the appropriate measures. Denial of emotional feelings may numb a person temporarily, but denial delays the development of long-term coping mechanisms. One of the key factors in managing stress is accepting outside help, whether it’s in the form of friendships with other farmers or professional help.
Farmers who are dealing with chronic illness tend to become stressed more easily, and tend to become injured more frequently. When farmers are preoccupied with multiple concerns, they tend to take shortcuts that can lead to serious injury. Stress that leads to less sleep is also potentially dangerous when it comes to operating equipment or working around livestock.
Studies have shown that those who survive major stress events handle stressful times differently than those who don’t fare as well during stressful events. The key to those individuals’ survival through a stressful event is good management of their stressor pileup. They learn to use both existing and new resources, and work toward viewing their perception of stressful times from negative to more positive. They also adapt to whatever crisis is at hand, check themselves, and rebalance.
Various studies aimed at identifying the major stressors for farmers revealed similar results. Among the top stressors were government regulations, financial difficulties (foreclosure on a loan or mortgage), health problems, excessive paperwork, criticism by the media, crop loss, severe weather conditions and death of a family member.
Most farm families are dealing with more than one stressor at any given time, so the added pressure of one more stressor is often enough to cause a major upheaval. While some stressors, such as a family member undergoing surgery and subsequent recovery, are temporary and have a fairly predictable outcome, other stressors are unpredictable and sometimes come with an open and lengthy timetable.
Phil Durst, Michigan State University Extension, offers tips for tough times in farming. First, take responsibility. While it’s easy to blame when things are rough, blaming only makes you feel better for a short time and prevents you from doing what is important — taking responsibility for your own operation.
Take the time to focus on specific areas of your business and determine what improvements can be made. Inform employees about any financial concerns and share with them the need to economize. Invite ideas and be open to answering questions.
Communicate with lenders and venders, even though such conversations may be difficult. Your banker may have some options to help you work through rough times. Consider the outcome of any changes you might make, and realize that saving money will not get you ahead if it reduces your income.
Make investments on areas of the farm where returns will be highest. Soil tests may be the best money spent if the results mean more precise fertilizer application. Measures to improve calf health, cow comfort or conception rates are usually worthwhile investments.
Determine weaknesses on the farm and figure out where you might be losing money. Durst uses the example of the age of first calving over 24 months, or calf death loss over five percent as areas of money loss that can be improved.
Durst encourages farmers to seek advice from management teams to use their combined skills and knowledge to help you make the best of things. Management teams usually include a nutritionist, veterinarian, lender, employees in supervisory positions and perhaps an extension educator who specializes in family issues. Professionals who aren’t directly invested in your operation can often provide good, objective feedback.
Be sure to keep things in perspective and try to separate your business from your life. The current situation is about your business, not your life. Always be mindful that there are family members and friends who are supporting you through tough times. And most importantly, be willing to seek professional help to deal with stress. No one will fault you for it and it may be the key to keeping your family intact.