Study offers insight on farm stress
Mitigating stress and anxiety is a learned and critical practice, the best individual results of which sometimes are discovered by trial and error.
Matt Berry, a first-generation Georgia farmer, knows first-hand the struggles that can accompany farm life and the difficulties of going it alone.
At the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) convention in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Matt and his wife, Alicia, shared the story of the adversities they’ve faced over the years working to build their farm businesses and the coping strategies they implemented to mitigate the stress and anxiety that comes with trying to succeed in what can oftentimes be a difficult industry.
For Matt, who began farming as a teenager and acknowledges he didn’t have a bevy of mentors or support systems in place, he admits the stress sometimes got the best of him and he tried nearly anything to numb the emotions.
“From thinking this is too much and ending it all, to drinking my way through everything … those were the beginning stages,” said Matt.
“There’s no shame in it at all. We do that because we’re looking for a … reason to go on.”
The Georgia couple, who own and operate CB Farms LLC, a commercial cow-calf, custom harvesting and row-cropping operation, and Dixie Lix Industries Inc., offering liquid cattle feed, liquid and dry fertilizer and herbicide applications, joined other panelists who shared research and survey information regarding stress, anxiety and mental health, as well as the coping strategies best utilized to alleviate the stressors faced by the farm population.
It’s a subject that in the past would have been considered taboo, but that’s changing, experts say.
Survey results“We are facing a crisis in the agricultural community,” said Lily Baucom, executive director of the Georgia Foundation for Agriculture. Research shows farm workers have the highest suicide rate among any occupation, she said.
“I personally believe that this is the number one issue facing our industry today,” she said.
A Georgia survey conducted by the foundation, in cooperation with the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center at the Mercer University School of Medicine, revealed some alarming results regarding farm stress.
Baucom said the aim of the survey was to discover the challenges facing the state’s farmers and to identify preventative measures and coping mechanisms to aid farmers as they work through their own mental health.
According to the survey results:
- 29% of farmers report thinking of dying by suicide at least once per month.
- 42% of farmers have thought about dying by suicide at least once in the past 12 months.
- 47% of farmers report experiencing loneliness at least once per month.
- 49% of farmers report being sad or depressed at least once per month.
- 39% of farmers report feeling hopeless at least once per month.
Survey results show there are significant differences across categories, such as by age, gender or race. For example, first-generation farmers (46%) reported experiencing suicidal thoughts in the past month more so than experienced farmers (12%).
An estimated 34% of female farmers, 29% of black farmers and 30% of young farmers have thought about dying by suicide at least once per month.
Stephanie Basey, a Ph.D. candidate at Mercer University, said the numbers are telling. “At least half of first-generation farmers are lonely, sad or depressed, hopeless or unhappy with their farm role at least once per month,” Basey said.
“Thirty-four percent of female farmers think about dying by suicide once a month. That’s one in three.”
Different stressorsFor the purposes of the survey, farm workers included farm owners, farm managers, farm workers and farm spouses, Basey said.
While agricultural workers face numerous challenges, the survey laid out top stressors identified by the survey participants that include balancing home and work life; weather and its effect on the farm; the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on income; savings and retirement; unexpected financial burdens; and succession planning.
“Not all farming is the same,” said Basey. “We all experience stressors differently dependent on gender, age, race, experience and role on the farm.”
For example, while female farmers say balancing home and work life is their top stressor, farm managers point to savings and retirement, and farm owners worry more about the weather and its effects on a crop.
Coping mechanismsCoping with these stressors comes in different ways, according to survey participants. Exercise/walking, talking with family and friends or engaging in a hobby were among the positive efforts farm workers reported to alleviate everyday stress. The top negative coping mechanism was drinking alcohol, the study revealed.
Dr. Anne Montgomery, assistant professor of community medicine at Mercer, said positive coping measures can improve mental health and it’s good to see that survey recipients have a variety of coping systems to relieve stress and anxiety, from painting and sleeping to watching television or spending time with pets.
“About 30% of farmers are using exercise or walking as a coping mechanism, and about a third are talking to family or friends to deal with stress,” Montgomery said.
For Matt and Alicia, they’ve found that just listening to each other and getting away together when possible are keys to mitigating anxiety and stress. Matt has been fortunate to gain mentors as the years went by, and now he mentors others.
“It still means something to hear that confidence from (a peer), to listen and offer that advice to me,” he said. “We’re not in this world alone … and face similar struggles.”
Alicia, a part-time chemotherapy nurse, has taken a more active role in the farm business and says that has been beneficial. From working on cattle together to discussing farm equipment, it’s had a positive impact.
“Just being there for your spouse; you don’t know how important that can be,” she said.
For more information and resources to cope with farm and rural stress, please visit https://www.iowafarmbureau.com/Stress-Mental-Health-Resources.
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