Resources For Dealing With Farming-Related Stress and Mental Health Issues | Farm and Rural Family Life
Farming is a demanding occupation. Any farmer and their family can attest that turning a profit on their family farm includes long days and countless hours filled with worry about variables they cannot always control. As a farmer’s daughter, I have experienced first-hand how the ripple effects of chronic stress can impact the mental and physical health of everyone involved with a farm. A brief look into current farming data and figures can provide a snapshot of farm families’ challenging decisions.
According to 2021 data provided by the USDA Economic Research Service’s “Charts and Map About Your State,” there are currently 52,700 farms in Pennsylvania, which provide a combined net income of over $2.8 billion. In doing the math, this equates to an average farming net income of $53,844 for Pennsylvanian farming families. When considering that this figure does not include health insurance nor any other typical full-time job benefits, farmers may feel as though they are constantly in the position of compromising or making sacrifices to stay solvent.
Family members often play multiple roles in farming operations by assisting with finances, providing labor or running additional errands, while frequently maintaining a full-time job away from the farm to provide health insurance and a stable income. Juggling these multiple responsibilities creates busy schedules with minimal time to be “off the clock.”
Although forecasted data from the USDA Economic Research Service’s 2022 discussion on “Assets, Debt, and Wealth” suggests a decrease in the national debt-to-asset ratio and debt-to-equity ratio for farmers, this decrease has not been consistent. Additional data from the discussion’s “US Farm Sector Assets” chart has reflected a steady increase in both these figures beginning most recently in 2012. This same discussion indicates both the national debt-to-asset ratio and debt-to-equity ratio are primary indicators of a farm’s ability to pay off debts.
Unfortunately, many farming financial stressors are due to elements outside a farmer’s control, such as weather and commodity prices.
Family responsibility and legacy also play a significant role, as retiring farmers bear the burden of how to ensure the farm stays in the family for future generations through succession planning.
Considering all of these factors, it is not surprising that farmers are at increased risk of dying by suicide. Based on the 2016 study, “Suicide Rates by Industry and Occupation,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that farmers are one and a half times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population. With this increased risk, family members, friends and the farming community must be aware of the signs and symptoms associated with chronic stress and offer suggestions on how to handle stress. Michigan State Extension’s Communicating with Farmers Under Stress program offers the following signs and symptoms of chronic stress: change in routine, a decline in livestock care, an increase in illness, an increase in farm accidents, a decline in the appearance of the farmstead, and possible signs of stress in children (if present).
Managing Stress in Yourself and Loved Ones
If you notice these signs and symptoms in a loved one, assure them they are not alone and offer to connect them with someone who can help. You are not expected to be a mental health professional nor provide a diagnosis, but sometimes the most impactful thing that someone can do is be present and be an active listener. One example of active listening might be the phrase, “I can see you are having a difficult time with this problem; what changes would you like to see, and how can I help you?” Practice patience and be comfortable with silence, as those dealing with chronic stress may require more thought-processing time due to feelings of being overwhelmed. Offer support however you feel comfortable in your role to the individual. For example, a feed dealer will have a much different approach and comfort level than a spouse or family member, when approaching someone experiencing stress.
Consider suggesting common ways to handle stress, including deep breathing, positive self-talk, meditating, exercising and connecting with other family or friends. Speaking with a mental health professional may also benefit an individual by providing them with an unbiased perspective and offering new ideas for handling stress effectively. Another highly effective method of connecting with someone managing chronic stress is to follow up and check in with that person routinely. Both personal and professional experience have taught me that the farming community is typically close-knit and protective. It can be amazing how much a simple wave and greeting can offer to someone feeling isolated.
With such high rates of farm-related stress across the country, our Pennsylvania rural communities need to be aware of how to spot signs of chronic stress in their friends and family members. Penn State Extension’s farm stress team offers resources and workshops alongside agricultural groups to teach the farming community how to handle specific farm-related stressors. Specifically, the farm stress team is launching a farm stress podcast series this month to offer assistance, advice, stories and best practices for holistic health and wellness through interviews with experienced agricultural experts. All of these resources can be found here.
If you, a family member, or a friend are experiencing chronic stress and wish to talk with someone, do not hesitate to reach out to the Pennsylvania AgriStress Helpline at 833-897-AGRI (2474). For those needing immediate assistance or are considering death by suicide, there is the option to call or text the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 from a cellphone.
Please remember that you are never alone, and support is always a phone call away.
Amber Hughes is a Penn State Extension educator in Susquehanna County.