Stress on the Farm and in Rural America: Resources are Available

Posted on Apr 3, 2020

As the problem of stress related issues becomes more visible, the onset of COVID-19 has only escalated those stress levels for everyone as they transition to a time of working remotely, or not working at all.

But the agriculture industry, along with other essential occupations, must continue to operate to ensure our nation’s food supply is uninterrupted, putting added stress on farm families in rural communities where stress levels have already reached high levels.

With all that said, awareness of these stress problems has increased in rural America, even before the coronavirus, as those in the ag industry are more vocal of what their issues are.

According to a recent national Morning Consult research poll, “A strong majority of farmers and farmworkers say financial issues, farm or business problems and fear of losing the farm impact farmers’ mental health.”

In recognition of May being named as Mental Health Month, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) sponsored the poll which surveyed rural adults and farmers/farmworkers 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.

“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.

AFBF has initiated the Rural Resilience Training Program in its efforts to combat the issue. According to information from the organization, the program was developed by Michigan State University Extension in partnership with the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and Farm Credit, and is an online training program designed for individuals who interact with farmers and ranchers to help recognize signs of stress and offer resources.

“This free training comes at the perfect time and provides Farm Bureau staff and members a meaningful way to make a difference in their communities,” said RJ Karney, AFBF director of congressional relations.   

Many state Farm Bureau staff members took advantage of an in-person training session held at this year’s AFBF Annual Convention.

And to add to those efforts, Bayer recently announced it was transitioning its mental health awareness program, known as Farm State of Mind, to AFBF. This campaign focuses on reducing the stigma that is sometimes associated with mental health in rural communities, as well as provide information to farm families about this issue.

“As a third-generation farmer, I’m familiar with the stress of farm life, and I’ve heard heartbreaking stories as I’ve traveled the country about warning signs missed and loved ones lost,” said Duvall. “We’d like to thank Bayer for taking the initiative around this important topic and are excited to expand our impact by growing this campaign to connect even more farmers and ranchers with the resources they need.”

KFB President Mark Haney said it is hard to understand the trials and tribulations farm families face if you are not familiar with life on the farm.

“If you don’t live or work on a farm, it could be difficult to relate to the many issues that affect our farm families from both a physical and mental perspective,” said Kentucky Farm Bureau President Mark Haney. “Add to that the current situation created by the coronavirus outbreak, and stress levels can and have certainly escalated. But in understanding more about mental health issues, we can point people toward the resources we have available and be more mindful of what many on the farm and in rural communities are going through, emotionally, physically and mentally.”

Dr. Deborah Reed, a professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Kentucky and the state’s Agriculture Nurse through the UK College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, has worked on rural health issues for most of her career. She said people are seeing more and more of the emotional stress on farmers and have better insight on the toll it could take on local communities.

“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,” she said. “If the farmer is hurting, it won’t take long before the community is hurting.”

One thing that can 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.

“These young people are getting involved in this and to have them be aware of this problem and gain the skills to talk about it, and perhaps start (suicide) prevention programs in their own schools, would be a great step,” said Reed.

Many of these young people belong to FFA, a place they gain valuable leadership and speaking skills, which can be of great assistance when discussing such challenging issues.   

Kentucky FFA State Advisor Brandon Davis said the organization has long prided itself in allowing members a platform to share their story.

“Sometimes those stories are of great accomplishment and sometimes it is of struggles they battle to overcome, but all young people need a place where they feel they belong and feel safe to express their challenges,” he said.  “Feeling safe enough to share our vulnerabilities not only gives us freedom from guilt, worry, or shame, but it allows others to find the same freedom in their own lives.”   

Expressing feelings can certainly be a relief. That is one of the goals of the “Farm State of Mind” initiative; encouraging open dialogue among farmers through social channels as well as offering a variety of tips, resources and referrals to address mental health needs.

Lisa Safarian, President of Bayer Crop Science for North America said the organization recognized the need to help raise awareness on the important issue of mental health in farm communities.

The “Farm State of Mind” campaign was designed to encourage an open dialogue among farmers through social channels and offers a variety of tips, resources and referrals to address mental health needs.

“These are difficult conversations to have and our heart goes out to those individuals and families who have been impacted,” she said. “It was important for us to provide information and resources on the topic to those who needed it, but we quickly realized that this issue is much bigger than any one single company and no group is better positioned than Farm Bureau to take the lead on this campaign to help realize its full potential.”

Reed said while there are resources available, there is still a need to have health care providers and counselors trained in agriculture and able to understand a person from an agricultural perspective, along with a general public who are far removed from the farm.

“For those people who don’t even understand where their food comes from, they certainly don’t understand the landscape of the agricultural mindset,” she said.

There are some states that have begun to create lists with providers who have some agricultural knowledge or background. There are also some materials available at extension offices across this state.

“Kentucky extension agents are also getting a lot of education about this through online training. Many of them have participated in the Mental Health First Aid Training, a two-day, intensive  program that helps them have the critical conversations they need to have with people, and to also provide some resources where they could either send people to or, in the event of a crisis, they would actually take them somewhere,” said Reed.

 She noted that the important thing is that conversations are happening now that might have not taken place a few years ago. And having those conversations is critical in getting those suffering from stress issues to the resources they need.

Another key component of dealing with this issue is gaining the appreciation of a public not connected to a farm except for the fact that they eat.

“While we need to educate the public on the fact that farmers are dealing with high anxiety, being stressed out, depression and suicide, we also want them to understand that this is where their food comes from and they need to appreciate a farmer at least three times a day,” said Reed. “It’s a critical step so people will appreciate the work that farmers do.

For help with an issue or more information, here is a list of available resources:

https://www.fb.org/programs/rural-resilience/

http://www.acceleronsas.com/ResourceLibrary/Pages/Farm-State-of-Mind.aspx

https://www.ruralhealthinfo.org/

https://www.fb.org/files/AFBF_Rural_Stress_Polling_Presentation_04.16.19.pdf

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)