Farmer mental health

Blessings and burdens: The struggles of being a farmer

From hay baling to calving to planting, farming is hard physical labor from sunup to sundown.

But what many don’t take into consideration is how emotionally difficult farming can be.

Managing a working farm can lead to depression, anxiety, marital strife, financial stress, and addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average, and agricultural workers in are one of the top five industry groups for rate of suicide.

Farmers have always faced multiple challenges including weather, markets, overhead, the pressure of producing more food with minimal impact on the environment, health care costs, tariffs, and property taxes.

Today’s economic outlook for farmers is not encouraging and may be the worst since the farm crisis in the 1980s. In the last two decades, falling commodity prices, lowered consumer demand, and disrupted processing operations have all contributed to climbing farmer suicide rates. Farm Aid, a crisis hotline for farmers, saw a 92 percent jump in calls between 2013 and 2018.

A tough row to hoe

Farmer suicides didn’t get much attention until the 1980s farm crisis, which resulted from two droughts, a national economy in trouble, and a government ban on grain exports to the Soviet Union.

Farm families own 96 percent of farms, according the U.S. Agricultural Census. And according to the National Council on Family Relations, farmers and their families feel they must keep farming and their land at all costs, including their health and relationships.

But the number that do manage to hang on is shrinking as more farmers succumb to financial pressures and are bought out. When farmers fail to keep the farm in the family, they can experience serious mental and emotional turmoil, which is exacerbated by the intertwined nature of family and business.

Signs of depression in farmers

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

Leading causes of depression for farmers

  • Addiction. The strong link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression is well-documented, and self-medication — whether with alcohol or drugs — can be a coping mechanism for struggling farmers.
  • Burn out. Even on a good day when nothing breaks and no one gets hurt, farming is a grueling job. And nearly 75 percent of young farmers have off-farm jobs for additional income and health insurance, according to the National Young Farm Coalition. These jobs may help their families stay afloat financially, but they can contribute to further emotional stress.
  • Debt. When a farm struggles financially because of weather, family crises, or overall poor financial management, hopelessness or panic can set in.
  • Divorce. During parts of the year, farming is a 24/7 job. These demanding conditions can take a toll on marriages and lead to divorce, which adds yet another layer of stress. The risk of suicide among people who are divorced is 2.4 times that of those who are married. And divorced men are nine times more likely to die by suicide than divorced women.
  • Injury or illness. Agriculture is hard physical labor, so it’s not uncommon for farmers to injure themselves or skip a doctor’s appointment because it’s harvest time. Unfortunately, those injuries and illnesses can stack up until they become incapacitating or impossible to ignore, leading to lost time on the farm, financial burden, and then to depression and anxiety.
  • Isolation. By nature of the work, farmers spend much of their job alone. They may spend the day in a tractor cab or out managing the livestock themselves. They also bear the brunt of making decisions alone, which can be isolating.
  • Stigma. Farmers who know they are struggling or are experiencing a crisis may believe they are unable to get help. The perception that asking for help is a sign of weakness or failure is common in farming communities and older generations.

Mental health resources for farmers

Treatments for addiction, mental illness, and resources to improve your financial well-being are constantly evolving and improving. If you need help or know of someone who needs help, reach out.