It's Time to Talk About Farmer Mental Health

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Farming can be a challenging profession, filled with unknowns. Add to that limited access to health care in rural areas and stigmas around mental illness, and it’s no surprise that farmers struggle with depression, anxiety and substance abuse disorders.

According to a 2019 rural stress poll by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), the majority of farmers and farm workers feel their mental health is impacted by financial issues, farm or business problems, and fear of losing the farm. COVID-19 has further exacerbated these stresses, with two out of three farmers saying the pandemic has impacted their mental health, according to a report from the AFBF. 

But there’s always hope. By learning about the risks and warning signs, farmers can take proactive steps toward improving their mental health. Below, you’ll find insights on why farmers are at risk, common mental health illnesses for farmers, tips for boosting farmers’ mental health, and resources for farmers who may need help. 

Why are farmers susceptible to mental health issues?

Farms serve as both the bread basket and backbone of America. The country depends on farmers and farm workers to fill our plates and cups with fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, proteins, and dairy products. And, while farming is a critically important profession, it’s not an industry for the faint of heart. The terms “farm stress” and “farmer stress” are frequently used to refer to the many challenges that farmers face., Organizations like University of Maryland Extension and even the American Psychological Association have dedicated resources to address these stresses. 

Farmers are often at the mercy of weather, crop disease, insects, fluctuating market prices, loan rates, and trade and tariff policies. According to the National Farmers Union's Farm Crisis Center, recent years have been especially challenging financially: between 2013 and 2016, net farm income decreased 50 percent, and it’s remained low since. The stresses from COVID-19, including limitations in the supply chain, restaurant closures, market unpredictability, challenges with paying workers, and safety issues have added even more strains to farmers’ already stressful lives.

And then there are the challenges of accessing treatment. When it comes to mental illness, rural residents agree that they face a number of obstacles to seeking help, according to the American Farm Bureau’s 2019 rural stress poll. Those include cost, embarrassment, and stigma. While 91 percent of those polled said that mental health is important to them or their family, three out of four also said that it’s important to reduce stigma around mental illness.

What are common farmer mental health issues? 

Farm stress can cause mental distress and contribute to a number of mental illnesses. Depression, anxiety, and substance abuse disorders are some of the common challenges farmers face. It’s important to note that signs and symptoms of distress can take many different forms for farmers, and may look different than they might manifest in a city or suburb.

If you notice signs of disrepair on the farm, an increase in accidents or illnesses among farmers and farm workers or absence from normal routines, such as attending church, it could be a sign that someone is suffering. Read on to learn about more signs and symptoms for common mental illnesses, and how to identify and address these issues.  

1. Depression

Depression can manifest in different ways, depending on the person. It’s important to note that depression is more than just feeling sad for a day or two. Rather, it’s a lingering and disruptive sadness that lasts for at least two weeks.

What are some symptoms of farmer depression?

If you, a loved one, or a colleague seem to be off, depression may be at play. Here are some of the symptoms to look out for: 

  • A lasting mood that feels sad, empty, or anxious
  • A sense of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feeling helpless, worthless or guilty
  • A loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Fatigue or decreased energy
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Restlessness
  • Having trouble remembering, concentrating or making decisions
  • Changes in sleep pattern, including over sleeping, waking early or having trouble sleeping
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Thinking about death or suicide; attempting suicide
  • Physical changes that don’t ease and without an apparent cause, such as aches and pains, headaches, cramps, digestive issues

How can you address depression? 

If you or someone you love may be depressed, know that help is out there. Usually, depression is treated with therapy, medication or a combination of the two. In addition, some lifestyle changes can help reduce stress, which could help with depression.

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, talk to your health care provider. If you’re in crisis, don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish. The Lifeline Crisis Chat or 911 are also safe options.

2. Anxiety 

A little anxiety is normal from time to time. But if you’re experiencing anxiety that is so severe it interferes with your daily life, it could be something called generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. The National Institute of Mental Health describes GAD as excessive anxiety or worry that someone experiences nearly every day for at least six months around their health, work, and social interactions and/or routines. 

What are the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder? 

GAD has a number of symptoms, and a person who is suffering could experience any number of those symptoms, which include: 

  • Feeling restless, wound-up, or on-edge
  • Becoming fatigued easily
  • Having difficulty concentrating, or feeling your mind go blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Struggling to control worrisome feelings
  • Changes in sleep patterns so you’re having difficulty falling or staying asleep, or feeling restless or unrested

How can you address anxiety? 

Anxiety, similar to depression, is treatable. The most common approaches to treatment are medication, therapy, or both. Talk to your health care provider about what’s best for your mental health.

3. Substance Abuse Disorders

Addiction and substance abuse disorders aren’t just an urban issue. In fact, in recent years, drug overdose deaths—which are the leading cause of injury deaths in the United States—rose higher in rural areas than in cities. When someone is addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, their reliance on the substance can interfere with work, school, relationships, and other aspects of life. It’s considered a mental health disorder. 

What are the symptoms of substance abuse disorders? 

Depending on the type of addiction, some signs of substance abuse may vary.

Signs and symptoms of alcohol use disorder may include: 

  • An inability to stop drinking, despite desiring to do so
  • Having no control over the amount of alcohol consumed
  • Spending a great deal of time acquiring, drinking, or recovering from alcohol 
  • Retreating from other aspects of life, such as work, family, or social activities
  • An increase in tolerance (the need to consume more alcohol than usual to feel its effects)

Signs and symptoms of a drug addiction may include: 

  • Feeling the need to use a drug daily, or multiple times a day
  • Cravings for the drug that are so intense they disrupt or block other thoughts
  • An increase in tolerance
  • Losing interest in other parts of your life, such as social, work and family-related activities
  • Continued use of the drug, despite it causing harm
  • Engaging in behaviors you wouldn’t ordinarily engage in, including illegal activity
  • Inability to quit using the drug
  • Going through withdrawal from the drug

How can farmers address substance abuse disorders? 

Therapy, medication, or a combination of the two are often used for substance abuse disorders. To find out what’s available in your community, talk to your health care provider or call the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service (1-800-662-HELP) or SAMHSA’s National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and TTY 1-800-487-4889.

How farmers can boost their mental health 

Curious about improving your mental health? Health care experts agree that there are a number of small, daily changes you can make that may help manage stress, improve your mood, and help you to feel better. Here are some places to start to improve your mental health:

  • Focus on the positive. While sadness and anger are natural, and it’s important to feel those emotions, try not to dwell on them. Instead, embrace feelings of positivity and joy when you can. For example, reflect on what’s going well on your farm; think about milestones or accomplishments in your family or your personal life; or focus on ways your business has grown or strengthened over the years.  
  • Have an attitude of gratitude. Consider all of the things that you’re thankful for in life, from the small (like a helpful piece of advice from your farm retailer) to the large (a record-setting yield). Reflect on what you’re grateful for every day, and make it a habit to see the positive things in your life. Consider keeping a list of what you’re thankful for so you can look back at it on difficult days.
  • Take care of yourself. Farming can be exhausting work, and it’s important to remember that your physical and mental health are interconnected. By eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep, and drinking enough water, both your mind and body may feel better. For an added bonus, find some kind of exercise you enjoy that’s not related to the job. Running, cycling, yoga or other pursuits could help relieve stress and add healthy activity into your routine.
  • Find meaningful ways to connect with others. Farming can be isolating, so interacting with others may boost your mood. Find opportunities to do just that, whether it’s volunteering or attending church in your community. You could also go online to virtually connect with others who share certain interests.


Resources for farmer mental health

There are many resources for farmers who are struggling with mental health challenges.

1. Take a mental health screen through the Mental Health America site. It's a quick, free and private way to assess mental health and recognize symptoms.

2. Talk with your own health care provider or your insurance provider about connecting with a therapist or counselor in your community.

3. Alternatively, with COVID-19, telehealth—which allows patients to connect with health care professionals virtually—has grown exponentially. With telehealth, you don’t have to have a specialist in your community; you can speak with one anywhere. If you have health insurance, find out what’s covered by your plan. If you’re uninsured, search for a federally qualified health center near you to see if they can help. 

4. Farm Aid has a deep understanding of the stressors farmers experience. The nonprofit organization runs a hotline staffed with farm advocates, counselors and hotline operators who can help, or direct you to help. Call 1-800-FARM-AID or reach out to the Farmer Services team online for assistance.

5. Finally, the American Psychological Association dedicates a section of its website to Farmer Stress, and includes fact sheets on stress, tips on how to handle it and advice on finding a psychologist.

The contents of this article are for informational purposes only.  Corteva makes no warranty, or other representation, express or implied as to the accuracy of any information contained herein and cannot assume responsibility or liability for reliance on or use of this information. Readers are encouraged to confirm the information contained herein with other sources or consult with a professional health care provider.


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