Shedding light on a dark subject

I’ll be honest. We didn’t mean for this issue of Today’s Farmer to be such a downer. Stress. Homelessness. Flooding. Admittedly, some of the subject matter is pretty dark. Look a little deeper, though, and you’ll see light in that darkness. Talking about what’s going wrong is one of the most important things we can do to make it right.

For many of us—myself included— it’s difficult to talk about our mental health. Sure, we’ll gripe all day long about the weather, our annoying aches and pains, those few extra pounds we can’t seem to shed or the stupid driver going 10 miles under the speed limit in the fast lane. But when it comes to something person­al, something that’s really bothering us deep down inside, we often don’t talk about it. We can handle it. Fig­ure it out on our own. Pull up our bootstraps and keep going.

Farmers are notorious for bottling up their emotions and keeping their troubles inside. They are strong people who take care of their own problems and make it all work somehow. Farmers are described as “eternally optimistic,” “resilient” and “resourceful,” but they face unique stressors that can stack up and knock them down: floods, drought, debt, declining markets, rising input prices, neighbor disputes, resistant weeds, pest infestations, landlord disagreements, trade wars, regula­tions—I’m sure you can add much more to this list. So many of those factors are beyond their control.

When stress gets too high to handle, farmers cannot be advised to take a vacation or search for another job. There’s no escaping because they literally live at the work site. Plus, there’s much more at stake on the farm than losing a job. The possi­bility that they could be the one to lose something that has been in their family for generations is a heavy bur­den to bear. Farming is their culture, not just a job.

Shedding light on what can be a taboo subject is one of the reasons we chose to address “farm stress” in this issue with the story that begins on page 20. The downturn in the ag economy continues to create stress for farm families, workers and ag professionals, and the weather isn’t helping. Last summer’s drought was followed by an excessively wet fall, winter and start to spring, and there’s an extremely short window to get 2019 crops in the ground. Farmers are working long, hard hours, and so are MFA employees. The pressure to get it all done is high, and it can take a tremendous toll.

Timing of this topic is also appro­priate because May is Mental Health Month in the U.S., an observation held since 1949 to raise awareness of mental health issues. This year’s theme is #4Mind4Body, emphasiz­ing that health is all-encompassing. Taking care of our minds is just as important as taking care of our bodies. The right nutrition, healthy sleep schedule, exercise and hydra­tion affect our mental and physical health equally.

Balancing all of those things is easier said than done, right? Espe­cially when crops need to be planted, fertilizer needs to be spread, weeds need to be controlled, hay needs to be cut and animals need to be fed. Inevitably, equipment will break down, storms will pop up at the worst time and your best employee will call in sick.

Everyone is going to have bad days, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. Sometimes stress is beyond what our own minds and bodies can handle. Admitting that is not sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. It takes courage to recognize you can’t resolve prob­lems on your own and to reach out to someone for help. That person may be a friend, neighbor, family member or church leader. Farmers are even using online forums such as #AgTwitter to encourage one another to seek help with stress in their day-to-day jobs and offer tips on coping with depression.

However, pride, reputation and self-sufficiency often keep farmers from sharing their dilemmas with anyone. In that case, they may need to seek counseling from a mental health professional. Talking to an unbiased third party can provide perspective, moderate emotions and offer accountability. Our cover story, “Worries Within,” offers resources on how to spot, relieve and find help for stress-related issues.

For the sake of yourself and your family, don’t let stress get out of con­trol. Heed the warning signs and pay attention to your feelings. Lean on your support network for help and find ways to reduce stress whenever possible. If you’re overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to find a mental health professional. Your own coping methods may not be enough. Talking about your problems won’t solve them, but it may help you learn how to help yourself.

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