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Tell-Tale Signs of a Mental Health Crisis for Farmers and Ranchers

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By Julie Murphree and Liz Foster

A strong majority of farmers and farmworkers say financial issues, farm or business problems and fear of losing the farm impact farmers’ mental health, according to a national Morning Consult research poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation in recognition of May as Mental Health Month.

While some ways to manage stress are positive, others will obviously have a long-term negative impact.

With these pressures as a backdrop, there are clear signals to identify potential mental health crisis situations for farmers and ranchers, said Robin Tutor-Marcom, with North Carolina Agromedicine Institute. Her list of signals to be on the lookout for are below.

  • Decline in care of crops, animals and farm
  • Deterioration of personal appearance
  • Increasing life insurance
  • Withdrawing from social events, family and friends
  • Change in mood and or routine
  • Increase in farm accidents
  • Family shows signs of stress
  • Increase in physical complaints, difficulty sleeping
  • Increase in drug or alcohol use
  • Giving away prized possessions, calling or saying goodbye
  • Feeling trapped (no way out)
  • Making statements such as “I have nothing to live for” and “My family would be better off without me; I don’t want to be a burden”

Tutor-Marcom, during a recent national conference of Farm Bureau safety and health coordinators, listed the most commonly diagnosed issues: relationship problems with spouses, parents and children (40%); adjustment problems such as anxiety and depression due to stress (24%); and anxiety disorders including excessive worry and panic (11%).

Farmers and ranchers, according to research, typically manage their stress in one of four ways.

  1. Figure, reassess and reassure: Always figuring out how to make ends meet. If they can convince themselves it’s going to be OK, they can convince family and loan officers.
  2. Distraction: They go get parts, ignore troubling issues, take the day off.
  3. Repression: Eat, drink or do drugs.
  4. Broaden and Build: Build positive reserves. When times get bad remember the good or fun times (go fishing or camping, participate in other recreational activities).

While some ways to manage stress are positive, others will obviously have a long-term negative impact. And, if a family member recognizes some telltale signs, the experts suggest a few immediate ways to positively improve the situation.

  • Listen, don’t blame. While time to talk on the farm may be rare, it’s important, so listen to what needs to be said and show empathy. Many experts suggest that listening non-judgmentally with care and concern may be most of what’s needed.
  • Recognize the problem, don’t avoid it. Family members can give encouragement and provide resources for help.
  • Cultural and religious beliefs can have a positive impact. For many people, faith is the strongest hope to hang on to.
  • Keep resources handy, especially during May, which is Mental Health Month and provides a legitimate excuse to talk about the issue. For example: Employee Assistance Program, www.workhealthlife.com; National Alliance on Mental Health, www.nami.org; Make It OK, https://makeitok.org/resources; and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.

Farm Bureau is advocating for programs that provide America’s farmers and ranchers with critical support and mental health resources and is urging Congress to fund $10 million for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, the level authorized in the 2018 farm bill.

Julie Murphree is outreach director at Arizona Farm Bureau. Liz Foster is executive director of Maricopa County (Arizona) Farm Bureau. This column was adapted from “Tamping Down the Stress Level on the Farm,” a blog post published by Arizona Farm Bureau.

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