Farmer alone in corn

URBANA, Ill. — Even without the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, agricultural producers experience high levels of anxiety, depression, substance use and death by suicide.

Researchers at the University of Illinois and Illinois Extension are working to ensure producers and their families have the resources and access to services to manage their stress and mental health.

The USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), through the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) grant program, awarded nearly $7.2 million in investment funding for the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center (NCFRSAC), a 12-state collaborative that will create and expand stress management and mental health resources and services to agricultural producers and stakeholders in the North Central region.

The project is led by Josie Rudolphi, assistant professor in agricultural and biological engineering, and Courtney Cuthbertson, assistant professor in human development and family studies, both in the at University of Illinois.

“We know the agricultural community is under tremendous stress, which can negatively affect mental health,” Rudolphi says in a university news release. “While producers experience a number of barriers to formal mental health care, we realize agricultural producers are nestled within families and social groups, the agricultural industry and larger communities. These community connection points provide opportunity for resources and service intervention.”

The NCFRSAC network will expand programs that provide professional agricultural behavioral health interventions, support farm telephone hotlines and websites, and provide needed training and resources for producers and those in agriculture-related occupations.

“Our goal is to ensure agricultural producers have access to resources and services where and when they need them,” Rudolphi says.

The key target audiences for this project include individuals engaged in production agriculture with specific emphasis on producers; farm youth and farm families; and allies and supporters of agricultural producers, specifically agribusiness professionals and healthcare providers.

“The agricultural workforce is diverse, across farming characteristics like farming role, generation, and commodity, as well as demographic characteristics like age, race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and so on. Through NCFRSAC we aim to offer inclusive resources that better fit agricultural producers and stakeholders as a diverse group,” Cuthbertson notes.

The researchers and Illinois Extension have already completed several activities related to supporting producer wellbeing. In fall 2019, Illinois Extension convened a farm stress team to meet regularly to discuss existing needs and appropriate steps toward providing farm stress-related programs and resources.

Under the 2019 North Central FRSAN grant, Illinois Extension is offering Mental Health First Aid courses to Extension, agribusiness and agricultural stakeholders across the state.

In summer 2020, the Illinois Extension farm stress group created brief videos called, “A Moment for Mental Health,” played during commercial agriculture webinars to introduce topics such as identifying stress, coping strategies, how to find a mental health professional, and mindfulness.

“Farming is a complex, multi-dimensional profession that places a unique set of demands on those working in it,” says Shelly Nickols-Richardson, associate dean and director of Illinois Extension.