In these uncertain financial times, farm families face growing stress. With stress, there is an increased risk of drug or alcohol use and abuse.
“These substances may alter our perception in the short-term but often make challenging problems worse in the longer-term,” John Shutske, University of Wisconsin Extension ag safety and health specialist, said in a recent video on dairy farm stress.
Larry Tranel, an Iowa State University Extension dairy specialist has seen stress lead to a lot of farm family and marital conflict, drug and alcohol abuse and depression and suicide.
In the last six to 12 months, he has seen a dramatic increase in farm stress.
“I've probably done more mental health work in the last 12 months than I did even in 2009, another low point for dairy prices,” Tranel said.
Connie Popenhagen works with farmers and people who work in the farm industry as a licensed independent social worker for Pathways Behavioral Services in the Chickasaw County, Iowa, community of Fredericksburg. Pathways offers substance abuse and mental health prevention and treatment services in six northeast Iowa counties.
“In rural areas there typically is a lower level of education, more unemployment, isolation and transportation can be a really big barrier,” Popenhagen said.
“With all that, it does probably create a higher risk for the use of alcohol and other substances. Opiates are not nearly as prevalent here as methamphetamine, marijuana or alcohol. Addiction to prescription drugs is not a big problem here.”
For farmers, Popenhagen sees more issues with alcohol than other substances. But so far she hasn’t seen an increase in people having problems due to growing farm stress.
“More of that may be coming,” she said. “I’ve read that farmers are financially stressed, but I have not had anyone come in and say they’re really stressed and needing help due to that. They could be seeking out other places of help too.”
Popenhagen, who grew up in a farm family, said farmers are pretty independent and can be pretty isolated, but most are connected to their communities.
She works with people who suffer from depression, anxiety, adjustment or substance abuse disorders or who need help coping with stress.
Many of the people she sees deal with a lot of uncertainty, wondering if they can make their next car payment or afford the rent.
“Rural poverty is kind of hidden,” she said. “There are a lot of people just trying to get by. They might be working really hard, but it’s hard to make ends meet. If everything goes like clockwork, they’re making it.”
Ted Matthews, with Minnesota's rural Mental Health Outreach Program, has worked with farm families dealing with alcoholism. The wife will say that her husband is an alcoholic, Matthews says. The husband will say, no, he's not. She'll say she finds empty bottles in the shed.
“Farmers hide their drinking,” Matthews said. “When people are under a lot stress, drugs and alcohol are a place that a lot of people turn to. It's harder to identify on farms. Who's going to see? You can be an alcoholic, and no one can even know you drink except for family members who see the behavior changes.”
Compounding the situation is if farmers hurt their backs or knees or shoulders, it’s not like they can quit doing their chores until they recover.
“What you do is take pain medicine, you take an opioid,” Matthews said. “It’s a legitimate use, but they’re addictive. If you take it long enough, you’re going to become addicted. You’re not a bad guy. We constantly focus on bad guy stuff and that’s just not fair.”
People react to stress in a variety of ways, and some are more healthy, said David Brown, Iowa State University Extension Human Sciences Specialist, Family Life, and a licensed family and marital therapist.
Some exercise, turn to prayer, spend time with family and friends. Others react by isolating themselves, eating more or using alcohol and drugs.
Because of the normal stressors in farming, farmers are more likely to report substance abuse than the general population, Brown said.
“There is a lot that farmers have no control over — weather, commodity prices, crop yields, machinery breakdowns, tariffs,” Brown said.
If someone has concerns about alcohol and drug abuse, there are resources to help, Brown said. Each Iowa county has access to a substance treatment center and a community mental health center.