Laura Siegal, health communications officer with AgriSafe Network, said there’s mental health crisis in ag communities, but there are ways to support farmers who are struggling.

“Farming is stressful, and most people know at least one individual who has committed suicide or who has depression and would like to know how to reach them,” said Siegal. “Recent research has found that for every suicide, 135 people are affected.”

Compared to other occupations, the ag industry has high rates of suicide and the highest lifetime risk for major depression. This is especially true in production ag and for those managing livestock and crops. “Even if suicide is not the end result,” Siegal said, “high stress levels can increase the risk of self-directed violence, the farmers’ risk of injury or accident and can increase the likelihood of developing chronic disease.”

The culture around farming is important because it can influence perceptions of health, illness and death, beliefs about the causes of disease, approaches to health promotion and how illness and pain are experienced and expressed.

“Culture is a dynamic process shaped by variables such as gender, age, geographic location, level of education, where they’re working, socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity,” said Siegal. “We can use healthcare beliefs to aid and support them.” She added that it’s difficult to categorize people into cultural groups, and that farmers may reside in and identify with more than one culture.

Family farms have unique culture and values including resistance to change, dealing with traditional gender roles, strong work ethic and self-sufficiency. “Rural farm culture can also include expectations about the business and the family and keeping the family business viable for future generations,” said Siegal.

Faith is often central to farmers, and faith can provide a protective role in mental health. Siegal said farmers perceiving their responsibility to the land as God-given and their belief that God will take care of them can be a protective factor in maintaining mental health. Farmers also view land as livelihood and a gift to future generations. With the factors that affect a successful production cycle, farmers traditionally look beyond what might happen and believe in good fortune and blessings.

Cultural stressors for male farmers include how they perceive themselves. “A male farmer’s sense of self is often tied to the farm as well as needing to uphold traditional family roles and models of masculinity,” said Siegal. “Threats to the farm’s viability can challenge the farmer’s sense of family tradition, their livelihood and feelings of self-worth.”

The culture of mental health in agriculture

There’s stigma associated with seeking help for mental health, and in agriculture, this can be compounded by the perceived threat to masculinity of farmers. Farmers often present stress as a physical complaint, so it’s worth paying attention to any physical complaints.

Most farmers are among the older members of a given population, and also likely to be veterans. “Old age and veteran status are two risk factors for suicide,” said Siegal. “Suicide in farming males seems to result from crises that occur over time rather than just one event. In general, rural men are likely to adopt more risky health behaviors than women, and the rate of suicide and self-harm among rural men is almost twice that of their urban counterparts.”

Also noteworthy is that for farmers, guns are a necessary tool on the farm. Having access to guns increases the opportunity for self-harm.

Female farmers also have cultural stressors. “Research has shown that farm women experience higher rates of stress than males in regard to farm operations as well as the physical, social and financial well-being of all family members,” said Siegal. “In addition to their farm duties, women have traditionally been responsible for farm tasks, childcare and farm-related errands.” As farming has become less profitable, more women have taken on off-farm jobs to supplement income.

The likelihood of a high workload is associated with female stress and fatigue. While farm women traditionally support their husband or partner’s mental health, women don’t typically receive reciprocal mental health support from their spouse.

Young and intergenerational farmers have unique stressors including limited land access, lack of access to capital, less access to affordable healthcare, figuring out how to maintain an off-farm job and working to establish themselves in the ag industry. Young farmers on intergenerational farms often feel as though they don’t have any control over what’s happening on the farm and may not have a say in farm management.

“For intergenerational farmers, there’s a culture that already exists which allows farmers to pass along knowledge, land, equipment to the next generation to continue the family legacy,” said Siegal. “This can add extra stressors – what if they don’t want to continue the legacy or be a farmer?” Each generation typically holds views on how the farm should be managed and the older generation may not want to give that up.

Churches are often the center of rural communities and can influence attitudes and behaviors of members. Pastors or other members of the church can offer counseling and guidance in a spiritual manner, which is often viewed with less stigma. The church is also a place for prevention and outreach programs.

“Widespread social events are effective, especially when community pillars are involved,” said Siegal, adding that local government officials and business owners can be valuable in developing programs. “Community participation in interventions and programs increases trust in resources. Word-of-mouth communication between neighbors can also increase acceptance and awareness of mental health and help normalize participation in mental health programs.” Community programs can help increase mental health literacy, which decreases the stigma associated with seeking help.

Siegal said farming stressors will likely increase due to unpredictable economic stability, increasing production costs, changes in government regulations and other variables. “Types of farming might change, especially for farmers with small farms,” she said. “They might need to diversify to increase profit, which can create more and new types of stress.”

Ongoing research is aimed at identifying needs of farmers to ensure optimum mental health. “From that research, we can develop resources and programs and farming practices to minimize stress,” said Siegal. “Knowing the stressors associated with farming can inform how you question, persuade, and refer anyone you might speak with about their mental health or suicidal ideations.”

by Sally Colby