Farmers mental health

Hard times are harder on farmers

Recent challenges we’ve all faced — the pandemic, political unrest, an uncertain economic picture — can seem worse for those in high-stress professions.

Farming is one of those professions. Farmers are pressed to produce while minimizing their environmental impact. Volatile commodity prices and disrupted processing operations have joined climate change as urgent daily concerns. Add in high overhead costs and spiraling expenses for health care, tariffs, and property taxes, and you have the ingredients for a perfect storm of stress.

Whatever the stresses and causes, the suicide rate among farmers is three and a half times higher than among the general population.

Farmers’ mental health and suicide rates have been researched for decades in a global context, but the United States has limited research detailing the unique needs of American farmers.

Still, there are some well-established tips for managing your stress, as well as signs to watch for in those you love.

Depression isn’t just a black mood. It’s a medical condition with many variations, and different illnesses require quite different care. Any treatment plan should be managed by a healthcare professional in consultation with your primary care physician.

Here are some generally accepted tips from expert resources:

  • Be patient with yourself if you’re the one who’s depressed, and with a friend or family member who’s in the grips of a depressive episode.
  • Talk about it. Sharing about your struggles with friends, family, or a mental health professional can help.
  • Remember burnout makes things worse. Working harder and faster, putting in longer hours, or working extra jobs (as the National Young Farmers Coalition says 75 percent of farmers do) might seem like solutions in the short run, but they can end up taking a heavy emotional toll.
  • Don’t try to go it alone or just tough it out. If you’re struggling, seek professional help.
  • Try to avoid the shame trap. The belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness or failure is common in farming communities and older generations. But depression isn’t fragility or a defect in character. It’s as serious an illness as heart disease or cancer, and it can be just as life-threatening.
  • Self-medication is not the answer. A 2021 survey said that 74 percent of farmers reported being directly affected by opioid misuse, addiction, or overdose, either personally or within their families. Using drugs or alcohol to blunt depression’s pain may only cause a downward spiral.

Know the signs

While depression presents differently in everyone, here are some common signs:

  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Lack of interest in activities or work
  • Expressions or feelings of worthlessness
  • Nausea
  • Muscle cramps
  • Substance abuse
  • Clammy skin
  • Problems sleeping
  • Dramatic changes in weight or appetite

Mental health resources

Sources: Centers for Disease Control (CDC); National Center for Biotechnology Information at the National Library of Medicine; The National Council on Family Relations; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); USDA National Agricultural Library

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