To some people, farming is an idyllic way of life, but producers face some unique stressors that can impact their well-being.
“There are so many unknowns in the farming business,” said Emily Carter, Mississippi State University Extension agent in Sharkey and Issaquena counties. “This causes stress daily as decisions are being made for an unknown outcome. The tough nature of the job, long hours, lack of sleep, not eating a proper diet and other issues add to the stresses of making a crop and a profit.”
In fact, a national poll by the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2019 confirmed that about two in five farmers and farm workers reported experiencing increased stress levels and more mental health challenges since 2014.
Issues such as weather, market volatility and financial pressures have always weighed heavily on growers’ minds. However, recent events have increased stress related to these factors, including COVID-19 and flooding in the Delta.
“In the south Delta, farmers have experienced unprecedented backwater flooding in the past two years,” said Carter, who works with many Delta area farmers daily. “In 2019, the flood lasted over six months with many farmers not planting anything. The 2020 flood was a shorter-lived flood, but for some, it still lasted too long to plant a crop.”
A new poll by the American Farm Bureau Federation in 2020 found that more than half of farmers and farm workers report their mental health has been impacted by the pandemic. Carter said farmers in her area are feeling the effects of the pandemic fallout financially and time-wise.
“Machinery prices are at an all-time high. COVID-19 has complicated the supply chain for machinery parts and other farm necessities,” she said. “This has made costs go up and also slows production on the farming end of things.”
Unchecked, stress can lead to changes in physical and mental health. Alex Deason, Extension agent in Sunflower County, said signs of stress in farmers look a lot like signs of stress in others, including extreme mood swings, withdrawal or isolation, working too much, changes in appetite or interests, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, and decline in the care of domestic animals and the farmstead.
If family members or friends recognize any signs of stress, the first step is to start a conversation, said Deason, who is one of several Extension agents trained in Mental Health First Aid. He also teaches the eight-hour course that helps individuals in communities understand how to recognize and better respond to signs that someone may be experiencing a mental health problem or crisis.
“The first thing you want to do is find someone the person is comfortable talking with,” Deason said. “That person may not be you, but don’t be offended by that. Help them find a person they are willing to talk to so that they can start the process of pulling some of that pressure off.”
Mental Health First Aid training provides individuals with the skills to notice and to reach out to farmers who may not ask for help themselves.
“I think farmers are hesitant to share the fact that they are stressed,” Carter said. “Farmers are ‘tough’ in many ways. The nature of the job creates a tough persona that is typically portrayed in public.
“Farming is not a typical 8-to-5 job. During the busy planting and harvest season, with yearly profits on the line, a farmer doesn’t want to take time off for help. Having a narrow window of opportunity to plant, fertilize, irrigate, maintain and harvest, most farmers will keep going and try to deal with the stress with various coping mechanisms. When farmers bring their stress home, their families are impacted,” Carter said.
Extension publication M2395, “Be a Hero! Take Care of Yourself,” provides more information about the warning signs of stress and how to cope with stress.
Mental Health First Aid is part of the PROMISE Initiative, an opioid-misuse prevention program focused on enhancing mental health among rural populations, especially agricultural producers.
PROMISE stands for “Preventing Opioid Misuse In the SouthEast” and is led by a multidisciplinary team of Extension professionals.
For more information about Mental Health First Aid training, visit the MSU Extension website or contact your local Extension office.
Mississippi State University Extension contributed this article.