Tamping Down the Stress Level on the Farm
Since the farm business added all the custom work to make their business plan feasible, he hasn’t had a moment to himself or the family in weeks. And, with budget expenditures ballooning, he and the spouse don’t seem to be able to talk about things the way they used to. He feels like day-to-day problems are escalating.
Farm and ranch families across the country and our own here in Arizona can relate to the situation above. A recent study proves the point.
A strong majority of farmers and farmworkers say financial issues, farm or business problems and fear of losing the farm impact farmers’ mental health, according to a new national Morning Consult research poll.
Sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) in recognition of May as Mental Health Month, the poll surveyed rural adults and farmers/farmworkers in the U.S. to better understand factors affecting the mental health of farmers, availability of resources, perceptions of stigma, personal experiences with mental health challenges and other relevant issues.
AFBF Women’s Leadership Committee Chair and partnered with her husband, Rick, in R&S Farms in Buckeye, Arizona, Sherry Saylor, suggests the agriculture community often gives more attention to their animals and crops than to themselves. “As farmers and ranchers, we put the care of our animals and crops as a top priority, but often don't take care of our own mental health. Our occupation is inherently stressful at best and in the present climate of low commodity prices, tariff wars, regulation, labor issues and more there is even more added pressure on the local family farm.”
In leadership positions with Farm Bureau most of her adult life, Saylor and the women’s committee are making mental health issue on the farm part of their program of work efforts this year on the national level. “Now, more than ever we need to be aware of these pressures and how they can affect us physically and mentally. It is imperative that we recognize the signs of mental stress and seek help when needed. Most people in agriculture tend to be rugged individualists not used to asking for this kind of help, but we need to remove the stigma of getting professional help. It could save your life or your neighbor!”
Saylor carries this message with her everywhere she goes across the country. She plans to also speak on the issue this coming July at Arizona Farm Bureau’s Women’s Leadership Conference in Tucson.
Farmers and farmworkers surveyed said financial issues (91%), farm or business problems (88%) and fear of losing the farm (87%) impact farmers' mental health. Other factors included stress, weather, the economy, isolation, and social stigma.
A strong majority of rural adults (91%) said mental health is important to them and/or their family, while 82% of farmers/farmworkers said the same. The Morning Consult polling found that a majority of rural adults have either personally sought care (31%) or have a family member (24%) who have sought care for a mental health condition. But, the numbers of individuals that sought help seem low.
“We all know how stressful farm life can be, and things are even tougher now because of the farm economy. More of us are affected, either directly or by having a friend or family member in distress. This poll proves what we already knew anecdotally: Rural America is hurting not just economically but also emotionally,” AFBF President Zippy Duvall said. “Even as the rest of the economy has boomed, farmers and ranchers are in year six of a widespread commodity-price slump. We can and must do more to address farmer stress and mental health issues in rural America.”
Perhaps eliminating the stigma would cause more farmers and ranchers dealing with stress to seek help. Three in four rural adults (75%) said it’s important to reduce stigma about mental health in the agriculture community, while two in three farmers/farmworkers (66%) said the same.
Large majorities of rural Americans polled agreed that cost, social stigma, and embarrassment would make it harder for them to seek help or treatment for mental health conditions.
“I am very troubled by the stories I have been hearing from my fellow agricultural producers around the country about close acquaintances who are suffering from depression which can and has led to the worst outcome,” explained Arizona Farm Bureau President Stefanie Smallhouse, who runs a farm and ranch with her husband, Andy. “Depression is a tough subject for most people, but particularly hard to talk about in the farming community just because of our culture of self- reliance. It is as a community that we need to be perceptive and on the lookout for these signs and lean in to help our neighbors and our friends through these tough times. Our farms and ranches tend to be the center of our universe, but we need to look outward and know that others are going through similar struggles. Asking for help is also a sign of great strength.”
Highlighting the need for awareness and training, the survey showed that farmers and farmworkers are less likely than rural adults, in general, to be confident that they would be able to spot the warning signs of a mental health condition (55% versus 73%).
So, what can we do? While mental health resources abound the first thing is to try and identify the warning signs.
Tell-Tale Signs of a Mental Health Crisis
Ruth Tutor-Marcom, with North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, advises that clear signals can be identified. “Communication is not weakness,” says Tutor-Marcom. She gives a list of signals.
- The decline in care of crops, animals, and farm
- Deterioration of personal appearance
- Increasing life insurance
- Withdrawing from social events, family and friends
- Change in mood and or routine
- Increase in farm accidents
- Family shows signs of stress
- Increase in physical complaints, difficulty sleeping
- Increase in drug or alcohol use
- Giving away prized possessions, calling or saying goodbye
- Feeling trapped (no way out)
- “Nothing to live for”
- “My family would be better off without me; don’t want to be a burden”
Tutor-Marcom, during a recent national conference of Farm Bureau safety coordinators, listed the most commonly diagnosed issues: relationship problems with spouses, parents, and children (40%), adjustment problems such as anxiety and depression due to stress (24%), anxiety disorders including excessive worry and panic (11%).
"Anxiety is so potent that it will affect you physically," says Tutor-Marcom. "Some lose feeling in hands, others have heart palpitations."
And, in today’s current environment, farmers and ranchers have a combination of conditions compounding the typical stress that can be found down on the farm or ranch.
Issues Compounding the Stress
- Increased production costs
- Trade/foreign competition
- Increased labor costs/shortage
- Tax re-evaluations
- Health issues
- Plant/animal disease
- Intergenerational tensions
- Development encroachment
- Commodity of scale
- Equipment failures
This list just names a few, though the list could be longer. Farmers and ranchers, according to research, manage their stress four main ways.
- Figure, reassess and reassure : Notepad and sticky notes. Always figuring out how to make ends meet. If they can convince themselves it’s going to be ok, they can convince family and loan officers.
- Distraction : They go get parts, ignore troubling issues, take the day off.
- Repression : Eat or drink or even do drugs.
- Broaden and Build : Build positive reserves. When times get bad I remember the good or fun times. (go fishing, camping, other recreational activities)
While some ways to manage the stress are positive, others will obviously have a long-term negative impact. And, if a family member recognizes some telltale signs, the experts suggest a few immediate ways to positively improve the situation.
- Listen, don’t blame . While time to talk on the farm may be rare it’s important, so listen to what needs to be said and show empathy. Many experts suggest that listening non-judgmentally with care and concern may be most of what’s needed.
- Recognize the problem, don’t avoid it . Family members can give encouragement and provide resources for help.
- Cultural and religious beliefs can have a positive impact . Faith for many is the strongest hope to hang on to.
- Keep Resources Handy especially during May Mental Health Awareness Month (a legitimate excuse to talk about the issue): Employee Assistance Program = www.workhealthlife.com, National Alliance on Mental Health = www.nami.org, Make It Ok = https://makeitok.org/resources, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline = 1.900.273.8255.
Finally, in a time when issues on the farm are more pressing than ever, strengthening your own health and wellness may be your best strategy for staying mentally healthy. What are these? Tutor-Marcom has several suggestions.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- Eat healthily.
- Balance work and play.
- Avoid working to weary (a common occurrence on the farm).
- Take time to unwind before bedtime.
- Contemplate, pray, sing, meditate or do activities that require mental focus.
- Be in the moment.
- Laugh. Keep your sense of humor.
- Accentuate the positive. Inventory your skills and strengths.
- List the things you’re grateful for. (Many suggest making this a regular exercise)
- Take time to unwind before bedtime.
“Although I think farmers and ranchers are some of the most optimistic folks around,” says Arizona rancher Smallhouse, “because you just must be - there is a certain somber mood currently out in farm and ranch country. Although the general economy is humming, the farm economy is stagnant. There are so many factors out of our control in getting our products to market that it can be overwhelming. We can’t control our circumstances; we can nurture our heart and soul.”
Farm Bureau is advocating for programs that provide America’s farmers and ranchers with critical support and mental health resources and is urging the U.S. Congress to fund $10 million for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, the level authorized in the 2018 farm bill.Join Our Family