Numerous resources are available to address the unique stressors farmers experience.
The physical demands that farming requires are no secret, but the mental and emotional demands of the profession are often stigmatized or ignored. Fortunately, the impact running a farm has on mental health is being increasingly studied — and better understood.
Josie Rudolphi, Ph.D., is an assistant professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois, and co-director of the North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Center. Her research and outreach focus on farm stress and mental health, agricultural safety and health, and child agricultural injury prevention.
“We know that farmers experience really unique work-related stressors,” Rudolphi says. “These include the unpredictable nature of commodity prices and environmental conditions, which can have tremendous impact on their bottom line. Farm finances are a leading source of stress, regardless of what’s happening in the economy. We’ve also seen associations between financial and environmental stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
The number of people in the ag community who experience clinically significant symptoms of anxiety and depression exceeds those who experience similar symptoms in society at-large.
“At any given time, people experience adverse mental health, but what we see is that those experiences are more common in agricultural communities,” Rudolphi says.
“In a survey of younger farmers, for example, we found that nearly 60 percent met the criteria for depression — and even more met the criteria for anxiety — which far surpasses what we would expect to see in the general population, which is closer to 20 or 30 percent.”
Many places in rural America are designated mental health care shortage areas. This refers to a lack of providers and services to meet the need. But it’s only one of the challenges farm families face.
At any given time, people experience adverse mental health, but what we see is that those experiences are more common in agricultural communities.
“In terms of barriers, we talk about the four As,” she says. “These are availability, accessibility, affordability and acceptability, or stigmatization. Additionally, most farmers are independent producers who operate on very thin margins. Mental health care is often considered a luxury, or an unnecessary expense.”
A change in behavior is one of the main warning signs of anxiety and depression, according to David Merrell, M.D., regional physician with Syngenta Health Services and the on-site medical doctor for Syngenta in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“When people begin to behave differently, for whatever reason, it’s important to understand why,” says Merrell. “Don’t wait. If you see a behavioral change, raise the question.” Approaching someone experiencing behaviors outside of the norm gives them an opening to talk about their emotional health, stresses and worries.
On average, people experiencing mental health issues take more than 10 years to speak up. That can be especially true for the rural community.
“Farmers and farm families are typically very self-reliant and can be reluctant to seek help,” Merrell says. “Recognize, though, that everything is therapy. Hobbies, self-reflection, sharing your concerns with others are all forms of therapy. The question is, what kind of therapy do you want? Engaging a mental health professional can provide access to a better, higher quality of care.”
Merrell advises a four-step process to enhance your mental well-being:
Notably, reports of depression and anxiety increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Rural America was not immune to that trend,” Merrell says. “A positive development, though, is that out of this came a greater awareness for the importance of mental well-being.”
According to Rudolphi, the USDA has funded four regional farm and ranch assistance networks, each with its own dedicated website and links to mental health resources and support for farmers, ranchers and agricultural workers. They are:
“In the North Central region, for example, we are working to deliver mental health literacy programs not only for agricultural producers, but also for those who work with them,” Rudolphi adds. These include bankers, retailers, seed dealers and others who know farmers both on a professional and personal basis.
“We are training these people to be mental health allies,” she says. “That includes being interventionalists, when necessary, knowing how to talk about mental health, how to ask the right questions, and how to refer someone who may be experiencing a mental health crisis. In several states, we also have partners who offer low- or no-cost professional behavioral health services, typically via vouchers which can be redeemed at several mental health providers.”
Historically, stigmas surrounding mental health and its treatment have been pervasive, particularly in rural areas. “We still see stigmatization around mental health in these communities, but I think that’s starting to change,” Rudolphi says. “Hopefully, through education, increased awareness and shifting attitudes, farmers and their families will be encouraged and empowered to take the steps necessary to enhance their emotional well-being.”