Mental Health: Ag Community Urged to Address the Stress

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Apr 10, 2019
ARLINGTON, VA -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Journal of Rural Health published studies last year that show suicide rates among farmers and farm workers are some of the highest of any industry, and are on the rise.  This disturbing trend has brought to light the many unique stressors and hardships that farmers face and the growing need for healthcare resources and support in rural areas.

In March, USA Rice joined a coalition of dozens of agriculture organizations in signing a letter calling for Congress to fully fund the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) included in the 2018 Farm Bill.  Congress provided $2 million in the fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill for a pilot of FRSAN, which will hopefully lead to full implementation by 2020.  The program provides grants for extension services, state departments of agriculture, nonprofit organizations and other entities to provide stress assistance to farmers, ranchers, farmworkers, and other agriculture-related occupations.  Resources will include farm helplines and websites, training programs and workshops, outreach services, and home delivery of assistance.

The letter notes that up to 60 percent of rural residents live in areas that lack adequate access to mental health resources.  Many farmers live in counties that don’t even have a doctor or a hospital, much less a counselor or therapist, and they may have to drive for hours to seek treatment.  Compounding the problem is that mental health professionals often don’t have the specialized knowledge to understand what farmers go through; they may not be informed on the complications of tariff issues, for example, or the particular pain of losing a multi-generation farm.  Studies show that farmers who work on smaller farms—11 people or less—may be at higher risk of depression or suicide.

Several states, including Virginia, Arkansas, and North Dakota, have already begun adopting policies and developing programs that aim to increase mental health support for agricultural workers.  The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture has recently implemented a free, hour-long educational program aimed at farmers that covers causes of stress and healthy ways to cope.

“People under heavy stress may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like substance abuse or working harder to solve the problem when what’s really needed is rest,” said Brittney Schrick, assistant professor of family life at the Division of Agriculture.  “We also offer group trainings, and an eight-hour training course for our country agents and our extension personnel, to arm them with some tools they can take out into the field.”

Schrick says that these agents may be in the best position to have candid discussions with farmers about mental health.  “We’re hoping to train them for what signs to look for, how to respond, and how to utilize the resources available to them when someone seems like they’re in a crisis.”

The CDC report was a wakeup call for agriculture.  The significant efforts being made by state and local farm agencies to create more honesty around mental health and provide better access to healthcare come at a crucial time.  For those in the farming community who are suffering, these new resources will shine a light in darkness.