Farming is recognized as one of the most stressful occupations in the world.
In a study published December 2002, mental health researcher Alain Grégoire said farmers are subject to a number of unique occupational stressors. Their workload, their debt and their personal goals are a consistent source of stress. Added to that are erratic markets, an indeterminate crop yield and the weather, making layers of stress-inducing factors.
At the center, as if in a Venn diagram, lies uncertainty. With the recent COVID-19 situation, experts say this has been intensified.
“The pandemic added another layer of unpredictability,” said Nikki Carritt, director of Rural Health Initiative at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Mikayla Johnson of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services agrees. She said the COVID situation amplifies day-to-day stressors.
“I have helped deal with natural disasters – most recently the flooding,” Johnson said. “Flooding was different. You could see the water receding. Now, there is no end date when things will be back to normal.”
Shutdowns have resulted in lower corn and soybean demand, said Glennis McClure of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. It has also impacted family members who work off-farm through employment changes, she said.
“A large (stressor) during the school year was dealing with children at home while keeping up with farm work,” said Susan Harris, UNL Extension educator on rural health, wellness and safety.
Media reports about dumping milk, meat shortages and produce waste, social cohesion being dissolved, and having to make decisions without all the necessary information have added to the chaos.
“The list goes on and on,” Harris said.
Stress can mount over weeks, months and years, she said. Then, a time comes when a breaking point is reached.
“It’s when chronic stress gets compounded by recent events,” McClure said.
According to Dr. Cait E. Fraser, a rural mental health expert, the average rate of suicide among the general population is 16 people per 100,000. Among farmers, and mostly men, that number is 90.
In her study of farming and behavioral health problems published Dec. 1, 2005, she found farmers experience one of the highest rates of suicide of any industry and there is growing evidence farmers are at higher risk of developing behavioral health problems.
“You’re not alone,” said McClure. “Help is available.”
Developing coping mechanisms is the key to decompressing, said Carritt. Making modifications around restrictions is one example, she said. Eat healthy, get good sleep and establish some routines, suggests Johnson.
Dr. Tara Wilson, a mental health professional at Chadron State College, said a healthy diet is very important. She said it’s as essential as putting the right fuel in the tractor.
Johnson said other ideas include simplifying things in your life – setting realistic goals and keeping a positive outlook. All of the mental health professionals agreed on one primary response for those feeling stressed – reach out.
“If you have a broken leg, you seek help from a medical professional,” said Wilson. “The same should apply to mental health.”
There are several personal professional resources available to farmers. Chief among them is the Nebraska Rural Response Helpline. This completely confidential service offers legal advice, financial advice and stress counseling free of charge for farmers, ranchers and their families.
“We have been fielding a lot of calls to speak with a farm attorney recently,” said Michelle Soll, program director for the Nebraska Rural Response Helpline. “Stress due to finances has caused a lot of depression issues.”
Johnson said farmers and ranchers can be reluctant to reach out to someone they don’t know. The local coffee crowd has served as unofficial group therapy, but with many places closed due to COVID restrictions, there is less socializing, said Wilson.
“COVID is keeping farmers from being able to socialize and share common concerns about stressors,” Wilson said.
Farmers are a resilient group, in part due to the ongoing stress they face, she said. But, friends and family need to be aware of signs that producers are succumbing to that stress.
“Often we find a farmer's identity deeply connected to the farm,” Wilson said. “If the farm is doing well, the farmer is doing well – and vice versa.”
A farm and farmer that is struggling might trigger a crisis. Warning signs consist of deviations from typical conduct. These might include a change in sleep, trouble concentrating, changes in eating, changes in energy levels or mood, she said.
“These behaviors might have an impact on the farm and be seen through crops or livestock,” Wilson said.
Johnson said that mental health is essential to overall health. Getting help when needed is paramount.
WHO CAN HELP?
Farm, ranch or rural residents Rural Response Hotline: (800) 464-0258
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)
Tax Advice (available for mediation participants)
Don Kalcik, CPA 1-402-435-2477
Heart and Stroke
American Heart Association 402-810-6870
Problem Gambling Help Line (24 hrs) 1-833-BetOver (238-6837)
Kids Connection 1-877-632-5437
Farm Debt Mediation Services: Nebraska Farm Mediation Service 1-800-446-4071
Suicide Prevention: National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 741741 to the Crisis Text Line