Ask farmers what they’re worried about these days, and they’ll be quick to talk about bad weather, low market prices, labor shortages, cumbersome regulations and restrictive trade policies.
When it comes to their own mental health, however, many farmers suffer in silence. Stress is the trouble they don’t talk about.
“Farmers aren’t making any money right now, and it’s wearing on us,” said Jon Roberts, MFA Incorporated livestock specialist. “Crop and livestock producers are hurting, and 2019 prices are projected to remain flat. Uncertainty about foreign trade, family illness or divorce can make stress levels even worse. Problems are stacking up.”
Self-reliant and independent, farmers typically keep their worries within. They often come from a tradition of not sharing their challenges, choosing instead to “tough it out” on their own. Farmers work long, hard days and may de-prioritize their own well-being to get the job done.
Roberts knows the struggle firsthand. Like many MFA employees, he farms part-time, raising 500 head of beef cattle and managing a couple thousand acres of pasture, hay and row crops near Leeton, Mo. Roberts admits experiencing an especially stressful year in 2018, when a late spring delayed planting and forage growth and a summer drought left much of Missouri short on hay, pasture and crop yields. A cold fall and bitter winter ensued.
“In my 57 years, this is the toughest winter I’ve ever seen,” Roberts said in March at the height of calving season during subzero temperatures. “It’s sad when you’ve taken care of a cow for a year, she calves at 2 a.m. in a blizzard, you’re not out there to get the calf out of a snow bank and it dies.”
He’s also seeing stress among the farmers he works with in west-central Missouri and senses that some customers and neighbors are depressed. Other producers are experiencing higher-than-normal livestock mortality rates as well. Beef producers have been forced to sell mama cows that lost calves, despite their importance to building herd genetics.
“If I had a broken leg, my neighbor would come over to help,” Roberts said. “If my tractor broke down, my neighbor would have a tractor here the next day. But if I have a depressed neighbor, I don’t know what to say; I don’t know how to help.”
Roberts learned more about how to help himself and others at the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association Convention in January. There he heard Jami Dellifield, a county-level family and consumer sciences educator and Mental Health First Aid instructor with Ohio State University Extension, who gave a presentation, “Don’t Let the Tough Times Defeat You.”
“Emotional wellness can be summed up as anything that affects our ability to live, to laugh and to love,” Dellifield explained. “Farm stress is rising. It’s not just an occupation—it’s an identity.”
Farmers generally find it difficult to share feelings, Dellifield said, but she has found ways to open up conversations when she speaks to farm groups. After hearing her speak, Roberts wrote an article about how to deal with stress for a regional MFA newsletter, assuring customers that “We at MFA and AGChoice care about you, your family and your farming operation.” He shared what he’d learned from Dellifield about how to identify signs of stress—many of which he was experiencing—and steps to take to improve the outlook.
“She nailed it,” Roberts said. “She had a profound effect on my farming operation, my career, my family and the people around me.”
Other Extension workers, farm groups and leaders, mental health professionals and economists also report increasing farm stress, mostly related to financial problems. USDA reports that total debt levels are forecast to reach $411 billion in 2018, the highest level since 1982 in inflation-adjusted dollars. Chapter 12 bankruptcy filings rose by 19 percent in the Midwest in 2018, the highest level in a decade, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
“Farm-sector assets grew 4 percent, or $125 billion, from 2012 to 2018, and farm sector debt increased 25 percent over that same period,” reported Carrie Litkowski, leader of the farm income team at USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Gary Marshall, executive director of the Missouri Corn Growers Association, is hearing more about financial stress— especially earlier this year when farmers were preparing their tax filings.
“That’s when they find out about last year’s income,” he said. “Every year it’s getting a little bit worse. There’s a lot of angst out in the countryside.”
In February, Karen Funkenbusch, a specialist in human environmental science with University of Missouri Extension, spent three days working at a booth at the Western Farm Show in Kansas City.
“I was surprised at how many farmers were willing to talk openly about stress and depression,” she said.
Funkenbusch’s booth promoted an AgrAbility program to help disabled farmers. Farm family members of all types stopped by to discuss stress, including veterans, 4-H and FFA members, and spouses.
“Farm wives are caught in the middle,” Funkenbusch said. “They might keep problems from their spouse to avoid a blow-up; they don’t know how to talk to a volatile kid; they don’t want to cause disruption and don’t know how to deal with the problem.”
Rural people face special challenges, she added. And while crisis help is available at no cost, many health plans don’t cover ongoing mental health counseling.
“Help’s not as available in rural areas,” Funkenbusch said. “Plus, people in small towns often don’t seek help; they’re worried people will talk. Even if they do look for professional help, it can be expensive. When you already feel trapped financially, what do you do first—eat, put in a crop, or pay for counseling?”
When help is available, it sometimes comes too late. The number of farmers who take their lives due to psychological issues is much higher than from farm accidents or illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study in 2016 that reportedly showed the “farming, fishing and forestry” occupational group suffered a higher rate of suicide than any other occupation. Those findings were retracted last year by the CDC, which said a misclassification of farmers created an overinflated number of suicides in the “Triple-F” category. It included farmworkers but should not have included farmers and ranchers, who were supposed to be classified as “managers” in the study.
Still, the retraction of the CDC study doesn’t minimize the risk and mental stress of agricultural professions and possibility of suicides by those who do own the farm. Farm advocates note that getting accurate figures is difficult because some deaths reported as farm accidents are actually suicides.
Debra Walker, director of public and legislative affairs for the Missouri Department of Mental Health, said her department doesn’t track stress or suicide by profession, but Missouri’s suicide rate is higher than the national average. In the Show-Me State, she said, one person dies by suicide every seven hours. Most farmers are male, and in 2017, 80 percent of those who died by suicide in Missouri were male.
“We have noticed that when times are tough in agriculture, suicide rates sometimes go up among demographic groups that farmers fit into, such as age, gender and race,” Walker said. “We noticed an uptick in suicides among this group during last summer’s drought.”
MFA’s Roberts admits that stress levels aren’t as bad today as what he and his family experienced during the farm crisis of the 1980s, mainly because there’s a better safety net in place with federally supported crop insurance.
“My parents’ farm was sold at auction on the courthouse steps to cover their debts,” he said. “I was able to buy the farm back later, but I can’t forget my parents’ pain. Today, farmers are leveraged, no doubt about it, but we’re not seeing land values fall like they did in the ’80s.”
Still, he said, stress is a critical issue among today’s farmers, who often keep their heartaches hidden for a number of reasons. Agricultural producers are less likely to reach out for help with personal problems, and friends and neighbors don’t always spot signs of stress.
“There’s stigma attached,” Roberts said. “It’s not talked about in the coffee shop. If the problem’s above the collar, you may not know about it. We like to solve things for ourselves, but when it comes to stress or depression, that’s not always possible.”
A survivor's story
Farmer helps others turn hopeless to hopeful
In 1985, David Middleton lost his farm, his wife left him, and he fell into such a deep depression that he considered suicide. The Missouri farmer thought he was alone in his struggles.
“People told me to snap out of it and think positive,” he said. “But my pain was so bad I was willing to die.”
Middleton credits family and faith with helping him overcome his personal crisis.
“God intervened and sent an angel to help me in the form of my second child, who said ‘Daddy, don’t leave,’” he said. “I realized I couldn’t do that to my family. The pain I would cause them outweighed my pain. Luckily, my parents got me into a clinic. I went through counseling, started taking an antidepressant and found prayer.”
Today, everything Middleton lost in the ’80s has been restored. He farms the same size and type of farm in a different part of the state, and he is remarried with six children. He also counsels other farmers on depression and suicide prevention, specializing in working with disabled farmers.
“But I’ll speak to any group on the subject of depression and suicide,” he said. “You can be blunt with farmers— and I don’t mince words. I tell my story and encourage people to get counseling.”
The 2018 drought affected him but he had enough hay stored to feed his cattle, and benefited from intensive grazing and relief pastures he had put in place. While the drought caused his neighbors to chop their corn for silage, Middleton was able to wait and his corn yielded 85 bushels an acre.
Admittedly, Middleton said he continues to feel stress when it rains too much or too little or when a farm payment comes due.
“But it’s not the end of the world,” he said. “I can deal with it now—I don’t keep the anger bottled up inside. I’ve learned how to decompress through breathing exercises, drawing closer to God and remembering that this, too, will pass.”
How to spot, relieve and find help for stress
Signs of stress
- Eating or sleeping too much or too little
- Pulling away from people and activities
- Having low or no energy
- Feeling numb or like nothing matters
- Having unexplained aches and pains
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Smoking, drinking or using drugs more than usual
- Feeling confused, forgetful, on edge, angry, upset, worried or scared
- Yelling or fighting with family and friends
- Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
- Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head
- Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
- Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or getting to work or school
- Thinking of harming yourself or others
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health
How to prevent stress
- Exercise 20 minutes or more daily, such as walking or anything that elevates your heart rate
- Schedule a checkup with your healthcare provider
- Spend 10 minutes a day to plan your day and your priorities
- Take regular breaks, 5 to 10 minutes, to relax and recharge
- Each day, write down three things you are grateful for
- Select three healthy habits to practice daily
- Share concerns with a counselor, pastor, family member or friend
- Take time each day for uninterrupted conversation with a family member or friend
- Get involved or stay connected with a group, organization or circle of friends
- Discuss your operation with others, but don’t let farming overwhelm all aspects of your life
- Seek constructive feedback on your farm operation and ways to improve
- Create a family and farm budget and live within your means
Source: Jon Roberts
Where to get help
- If you are having suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, text HOME to 741741, or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.orgfor free crisis support 24/7
- In Missouri, call (888) 761-4357, text HAND to 839863, or visit www.missouricrisisline.com
- Get local help from the Missouri Department of Mental Health Behavioral Health Crisis Hotline by visiting dmh.mo.gov/mentalillness/ progs/acinumbers.html
- Contact your local Extension office; Extension offers Mental Health First Aid training to Extension personnel, counselors and others. Look for classes near you at www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org
- Call 911 for emergencies or 211 for listening support if you have suicidal thoughts or mental health issues
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