Mental health in agriculture

T.J. Adkins

It's harvest time for Kentucky farmers and markets are as volatile as they have ever been. Labor is in short supply, seed prices and other essentials for farming have skyrocketed as COVID-19 has ravaged the economy and supply chains. Unlike many industries, agriculture is time and weather dependent, you simply can't wait until prices drop. Many people do not understand that producers are the initial link in the food supply chain, but they might depend on others to harvest and transport their crops and livestock.

The year 2020 opened the eyes of the public to just how valuable and essential farmers are to our existence. Many people had no idea where their food came from or how it was produced. Unfortunately, the public is still unaware of the mental toll that production agriculture can take on farmers and their families. Dr. Deborah Reed, an occupational health nurse who specializes in agricultural health and safety at UK's College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, shares that farmers suffer from one of the highest suicide rates of any occupation. And that is not just lately but has been the case for decades. Even living in a rural area places you at higher risk for suicide. The rural versus urban gap has widened in the past 10 years, especially for rural men whose suicide rate now exceeds 30 per 100,000 population.

The COVID-19 virus has affected all aspects of our lives. Recently, research noted that it affects our mental health also. Our routines have been upended. Meetings cancelled and supplies, equipment and other necessities required for the farm may not be readily available. We have learned to depend more on technology to communicate. The bottom line is that COVID-19 increases our stress, even though we don't have the disease. It is necessary to take care of our mental and physical health during these trying times.

Farming is much more than a job, for many it is a way of life handed down from generation to generation. The connection to the land is almost spiritual but it can leave the farm family feeling trapped in financial downturns. "Land rich, cash poor" is an expression often used to describe farm assets. In addition to financial stress farmers are subject to many external pressures beyond their control. Floods, droughts, wind, and late freezes can damage or destroy a full year's work in an instant. Diseases in both animals and crops must be prevented or combatted.

There seems to always be something to do on the farm and many farm families don't often get away for a real vacation. Labor is a constant shortage; however, this year many migrating workers or large scale contract harvesters, have not been able to keep up due to the restrictions caused by the virus. Family members, who may not have been active in farm work, have taken up the slack. This creates more stress as learning curves are steep. Children in the fields require constant supervision. Farm families may need to take their children with them as they work because of school closures. All of these factors increase stress.

Stress reduction is possible. Simple techniques can calm your body. First, step back and realize you are not alone in these struggles on the farm. We are all in this together. A few slow deep breaths changes the chemical response of your body to stress. This simple exercise releases endorphins, those good hormones that combat the negative effects of stress and allow you to take a new perspective on the situation at hand. You can also relax those tight muscles by incorporating gentle stretches into your day. Rolling your shoulders, turning your head slowly side to side, and reaching your arms slowly up to the sky will all decrease that muscle tension. Practicing positivity is a counter to stress and makes you a much more pleasant person! Remembering that this is not the first challenge you have faced will help you see that this too shall pass. Choosing kindness and appreciation boosts endorphin production. Try to help someone else every day- it could be a family member or your community. It doesn't need to be a big gesture, sometimes just a word of encouragement will help you and the other person. If you are not a "glass half full" person exercising this kindness gesture will develop your optimism and resilience.

Recently, several government and private entities have ratcheted up their efforts to support the mental well-being of farmers and their families. These include the Farm Bureau's Rural Resilience Training Program, developed by Michigan State University Extension in partnership with the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and Farm Credit. This is an online training program designed for individuals who interact with farmers and ranchers to help recognize signs of stress and offer resources. It can be accessed at https://www.fb.org/programs/rural-resilience/. "I think people, particularly in the rural areas, are beginning to recognize that the farmers are really struggling and that is something that has far-reaching effects in their counties and beyond," Dr. Reed notes. "If the farmer is hurting, it won't take long before the community is hurting." The American Farm Bureau Federation also supports a social media campaign, Farm State of Mind, to help bolster mental health conversations.

One thing that the community can do to help, is getting those affected by high levels of stress to discuss it. Reed said farmers aren't always open to that, but she is seeing more of it and is witnessing a younger generation opening up to either situations they know about or those they have experienced themselves. Several FFA chapters have addressed farmer stress in different ways, from public service announcements to speaking contests about stress and its effects. "As we support these conversations more and more people will realize mental health is important and ok to talk about. It also opens the door to getting professional help when self-care techniques aren't doing the trick. Stress can lead to depression and negative health outcomes," Reed says.

The signs leading to depression and suicide are subtle and often overlooked. They may include a change in attitude, withdrawal from usual activities, excessive fatigue, apathy, and a change in appearance. Many times the person will have vague physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, digestive changes, headaches, sleeplessness, and weight loss. Attendance to the welfare of animals and crops may decrease, or the farm take on a "run down" look. People suffering from depression may turn to alcohol or other substances thinking these will help numb their mental pain.

How can we support each other through these difficult times? First, express your appreciation to our farmers. They have worked throughout this pandemic to insure a safe and ample food supply. Buy local when you can. We have learned this year what our ancestors knew: it is far better to depend on the local community. If you notice any of the changes listed in this article for yourself there are several avenues to help you through this tough time. In addition to the self-care techniques you can reach out to Farm Aid at 1-800-FARM AID or www.farmaid.org. If you or someone you know is severely depressed or thinking about self-harm call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). For persons struggling with substance dependence text TALK to 74141. Help is available, have the courage to help yourself and those you love get through these tough times.

-- Deborah Reed, TJ Adkins

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