COVID farmer stress

Farming can be stressful enough.

Markets are crazy, it’s calving season, fence needs fixed, crop inputs are expensive and I may not be able to plant that piece of bottom ground again this year.

Then there’s coronavirus.

As efforts to slow the COVID-19 outbreak escalate in Nebraska and around the globe, people are being asked to stay home as much as possible and keep their distance from each other when they are out. Social gatherings and events have been also cancelled or postponed.

While farmers might be the original social distancers, farmers may find themselves cut off from everyday events that afford them much-needed social interaction, such as the high school ball game or morning coffee.

And that just adds to the stress, mental health experts say.

“The worry is the incidents of depression can increase from being alone,” Kearney psychologist Megan Gewecke said.

Juggling the competing demands, compounded with COVID-19 requirements, can lead to poor mental health.

Compromised mental health can manifest in any person in a number of ways — physically, emotionally, behaviorally and even cognitively.

Gewecke said family, friends or loved ones can look for noticeable signs when stress is becoming too much.

Changes in behavior are the most noticeable sign, she said. Behavioral symptoms can include expressions of anger, being angry with other people, inability to make decisions, chronic complaining, procrastination, withdrawal from family or friends, lack of self-care, and compulsive behaviors such as change in eating or sleep patterns, alcohol and caffeine consumption, gambling and other addictions.

Emotional symptoms can include depression, anxiety, worry, fear, feelings of powerlessness and being overwhelmed, feeling trapped, frustrated, irritable or angry, loneliness, grief and feeling like crying a lot.

Cognitive symptoms can include obsessive thinking, negative thinking, poor short-term memory, difficulty concentrating, making things seem worse than they really are, mind reading, black and white thinking (interpret things as all good or all bad), inability to see options.

Physical symptoms that farmers should be aware of include: headaches, chronic tiredness and fatigue, musculoskeletal aches and pains, hypertension, rapid heart rate and panic attacks.

But help is available, lots of it. Many farm organizations have mental health services available.

“Just talking can be huge, especially now,” Gewecke said. “As rural people, we like to handle our own problems, we think nobody understands our situation.

“Now, because we can’t see our friends, that leads to more isolation, more feelings of helplessness.”

She said perhaps the easiest thing to control stress is something everyone can do, not just farmers — namely, not to look so far ahead.

“Just concentrate on today and control the things you can control since there are so many things that are out of our control,” Gewecke said.

Recognizing the high levels of stress affecting America’s farmers and ranchers, Farm Credit, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union have partnered on a program to train individuals who interact with farmers and ranchers to recognize signs of stress and offer help.

In response to the many economic and environmental challenges confronting farmers, National Farmers Union compiled financial, legal and mental health resources at its online Farm Crisis Center. The organization’s partnership with Farm Bureau and Farm Credit will build on that project by further increasing farmers’ access to the information and services they need to get through financial and personal emergencies. Resources may also be accessed on Michigan State University Extension’s “Managing Farm Stress” website.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).

An online Lifeline Crisis Chat option also is available at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Both are free and confidential. People who contact the services will be connected to a skilled, trained counselor in their area.

Mark Jackson can be reached at mark.jackson@midwestmessenger.com.