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Mental health is as important as farm health

Browsing the magazine racks in an airport news stand, one jumped out at me. The cover shouted in big, bold letters, “Death on the Farm.” I’d read this national news publication for years but couldn’t recall ever seeing agriculture featured.  

That issue, which I still have, was dated April 18, 2014. The story was about the record number of farmer suicides.  Nine years later and farmer suicides are still high. 

Is it any wonder there is a mental health crisis in rural America? Hurricanes, floods, regulations, lawsuits, high input prices, low commodity prices — and those are just a few of the challenges farmers face. Add to that the pressure to maintain the family farm, one that gets harder with each generation. Finally, factor in that farmers, and as an extension farm families, are tough and often reluctant to talk about their feelings. We aren’t good at asking for help. 

I’ve been there. In the column below, I talked about how I finally went to therapy and it saved me. It wasn’t easy to admit I needed therapy and was even harder to press “post” on that article to make it known publicly. But that’s the first step in addressing mental health issues — to talk about them. To normalize them. 

We put crop and livestock health at the top of our priority list. Isn’t it time we put our own mental health above everything else? After all, if the farmer or farm family isn’t well, the farm won’t be either. 

As the mom of three sons who may take over their dad’s farm one day, I am concerned about the pressure on farmers. During my years living on the farm I saw the stress, anxiety, and strength of farmers. That strength keeps them going in the hard times, but can stand in the way when it comes time to ask for help. I want better for my boys.

Google "risk management" and you'll get a lengthy list of management issues like input costs, computer programs, and the like. But where are the resources for risk management for the farmers themselves and their families?

Many are taking notice of this crisis in farming and, as a result, there are more resources than ever. Some, like the Farmer Angel Network in Wisconsin, are created by a community in response to a farmer’s suicide. Others, like the North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, are partnerships between universities. The Farmer to Farmer program is a peer support group, with all peers being farmers, family members or people working in agriculture. My friend, Michele Payn, speaks across the country on “Resiliency for Agriculture”, based on her experiences. 

There is professional help available and if COVID didn’t do anything else, it brought that help from a counselor’s couch or doctor’s office to our farms. Many counselors offer telehealth, so you can meet with a licensed counselor from the cab of your tractor using a cell phone. 

My hope is that one day I’ll see a national news magazine cover applauding the efforts of the agriculture community to break the stigma surrounding mental health and the decline of suicides on the farm. It starts with you. Whether you are reaching out for help or starting a conversation with someone who may need support, its starts with us. I've seen the agriculture community come together to help farmers harvest crops before a hurricane. A storm is brewing, one that can destroy the farming community if we don't come together before it's too late.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text “988”. 


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