Rural Mental Health Workshop Reminds Farmers ‘It’s OK to Not Be OK’

A group with elevated risk for mental health crises may be the least likely to ask for help.

Depressed farm economies, weather disasters and the coronavirus pandemic have turned farm families into such a group. Farming-related stress can be exacerbated by the rural isolation and farmers’ “boot-strap” attitude. Studies show there is increased risk for suicide, substance use disorder and depression among U.S. farmers and rural residents.

American Farm Bureau Federation wants to smash stigmas surrounding rural mental health, encouraging farm families to seek help and help each other. Agriculturalists from across the U.S. discussed these issues Jan. 12 at the 2021 AFBF Virtual Convention during a workshop titled “Farm State of Mind—Responding to the Challenges of Rural Mental Health.” Panelists talked about awareness and access to rural health care services, and highlighted Farm Bureau’s efforts to confront the crisis.

A Morning Consult poll conducted among 2,000 rural adults in December 2020 on behalf of AFBF found that 66% of farmers and farmworkers said COVID-19 has impacted their mental health. More than half said they are personally experiencing more mental health challenges than they were a year ago.

Farm blogger Meredith Bernard of This Farm Wife Inc. in North Carolina said farmers are high-stakes gamblers.

“We don’t buy lottery tickets, but we buy cows and we plant crops,” she said. “Every day feels like it’s a gamble, and we don’t know what we’re going to wake up to. Is this the year that makes or breaks the farm for good?”

That uncertainty, plus the pressure to sustain a farm legacy for the next generation, causes unrelenting stress.

“The weight of all that—it’s up to you to keep something going—that can be huge,” Bernard said.

Panelist Randy Roecker said he knows that pressure well. The Wisconsin dairyman owns the farm his grandfather started in the ‘30s. He has struggled with farm stress and depression himself, and discussed warning signs: withdrawn demeanor, unkempt appearance, weight loss, irritability and exhaustion.

“This is a subject we have to talk about,” Roecker said, discussing efforts in his community to combat the crisis. “It’s OK to not be OK.”

Panelists said resources are in reach, especially telehealth options that will become more accessible with legislation to expand rural broadband infrastructure.

Marshal Sewell, a field sales representative for Bayer Crop Science, talked about the Rural Resilience Training Program developed in conjunction with AFBF. The program teaches skills to understand the sources of stress, learn warning signs of stress and suicide, identify effective communication strategies, reduce stigma, and connect farmers with appropriate resources. The program is free for Farm Bureau members. For more information, visit farmstateofmind.org.

Northumberland-Lancaster Farm Bureau member Landre Toulson is the mental health and stress manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. He’s working with the Virginia Farmer Stress Task Force, which is committed to raising awareness and coordinating resources to address farmer stress and mental health challenges.

“Farmers and their families experience unique struggles as they meet the challenging demands of farming, to include Virginia’s topography and weather, our economic climate, and the shift in rural to urban populations,” Toulson said. “These demands may cause dangerous levels of stress. Mental health professionals are challenged with helping struggling farmers while increasing mental health awareness in their communities. Hopefully farmers will realize their mental health problems are not as unique as they may seem.” He said a local community services board or a primary care doctor are excellent resources

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