Editor’s note: This is part two of a two part series on stress on the farm.
Between unpredictable weather, heavy workloads and financial struggles caused by economic forces beyond individual control, farm life is undeniably stressful. Mental health often falls to the wayside in the face of the other challenges farmers face every day, but managing stress on the farm is just as important as maintaining physical health. In fact, the two are inextricably linked.
“Individuals that are in farming and ranching tend to have a higher rate of stress-related illnesses,” said Sean Brotherson, professor and extension family science specialist North Dakota State University.
Brotherson said that the sustainability of farming relies on farmers taking care of their minds as much as their bodies.
“Among the different assets on the farm, the most important asset is [the farmers’] health,” Brotherson said. “Without it, they can’t function on a daily basis, work collaboratively or maintain business and family relationships.”
Why managing stress on the farm is important
Though stress is largely viewed as a mental health issue, it can affect physical health as well. It’s an especially concerning program for farmers and homesteaders, whose livelihoods often depend on their physical health.
“We see a lot of evidence of physical health problems [in farmers], leading many to chronic health problems,” said Bonnie Braun, professor emerita of family science at the University of Maryland.
Brotherson said that stress causes different physical and mental effects depending on the person. For example, one stressed person may experience migraines or lack of sleep, while another could suffer from digestive issues.
“It’s important to understand how stress is affecting you,” Brotherson said. “Some people may become depressed, and others may start engaging in more impulsive behavior.”
Stress can also trickle down to other family members, especially children.
“We see children on farms go through pretty significant distress,” Braun said. “They get sick, they start to act up and they go into a lot of anxiety and depression.”
Farmers dealing with unmanaged stress may struggle to make decisions or consider all of the available options when dealing with challenges on the farm.
“When you are under extreme stress, you don’t make good decisions,” Braun said. “You may not adopt new techniques or alternative ways of dealing with things.”
In extreme cases, experts consider stress to be one of the contributing factors leading to farmer deaths by suicide. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention previously overreported farmer deaths by suicide as five times higher the national average after grouping farmers surveyed in 17 states along with forestry and fishing professionals (this categorization also did not include self-employed farmers or farm managers).
Still, suicide rates for farmers are estimated to be at least double — perhaps more than triple — those of other occupations.
“You have to ask what’s going on that’s leading this to happen,” Braun said with a sigh. “That’s part of why we have to talk about [stress] and find healthy ways to handle when it becomes too much.”
Tips for managing stress
Brotherson recommended that farmers and homesteaders start by focusing on what they can control.
“The more that you can focus on those things the more resilient you will be,” Brotherson said. “You can control, for example, whether you get assistance if you’re dealing with depression [or] what you’re doing with regards to diet and exercise. You may not be able to control the weather, but there are things that you can control.”
Brotherson emphasized the importance of self-care, or activities that help individuals rejuvenate their mental, physical and emotional health. Self-care varies according to the individual, but it can include exercise, spending time with friends, exploring nature or watching a funny sitcom.
“Find sources of personal renewal that are important to you,” Brotherson said. “Get some rest and renewal for yourself. That’s the first priority.”
Talking about feelings is also essential to managing stress. Despite the cultural stigma, Brotherson also recommended seeking out community support, especially from other farmers who may understand what a farmer is going through.
Regional organizations can help farmers connect to a supportive community. If a farmer doesn’t know where to start, Leslie Forstadt, human development specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and director of the Maine Agricultural Mediation Program, recommended reaching out to the local cooperative extension. In Maine, for example, she said that the extension’s Beginning Farmer Resource Network that has a variety of service providers that are available to help with everything from business planning to stress reduction.
“It may not look like there’s a lot of resources out there, but that’s not the case,” Forstadt explained. “No matter what kind of stress they’re experiencing, we encourage [farmers] to reach out.”
Experts recommend that farmers suffering from chronic depression reach out to professional therapists for help. Brotherson recognized that access and affordability of health care can be challenging in rural areas.
“Rural areas tend to have more limited availability of health care resources, particularly mental health service providers,” Brotherson said. “We encourage people to see a primary health care provider to start. Those are most common in rural areas.”
If a person doesn’t have access to mental health care, Brotherson said to seek online resources. Along with telehealth assistance and online therapy services, Brotherson recommended listening to mental health podcasts such as Red River Farm Network’s TransFARMation.
“There are a lot more possibilities now to be able to get health care assistance through online sources or sources at a distance,” he said.
Farmers can also look out for resources to help with the legal and financial causes of stress.
“A lot of agriculture departments have mediation services which are designed to help people work through what may be happening with the future of their particular farm or ranch operation,” Brotherson said. “Then there are some national organizations — Farm Aid, for example, has some specific things that are related to helping people when they’re dealing with the potential loss of a farm.”
Ultimately, experts agree that, in order to help farmers and homesteaders cope with the challenges of the lifestyle, it is important for managing stress to become part of the everyday conversation.
“It’s pretty common for us to talk about health and safety in agriculture,” Brotherson said. “Let’s expand that to talk about mental health.”
To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255), or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.