It’s heartwarming to hear stories about a farmer who comes down with an illness and neighbors help finish the harvest. But what happens if a loved one or an employee develops a mental illness -- and is too depressed to even get out of bed? How would neighbors respond then?
This issue of Farm Futures is dedicated to tackling a crisis few people really understand, or even want to talk about: mental health in Rural America. A Farm Bureau poll found that 61% of farmers and farm workers said they experienced more stress and mental health challenges in 2021 than they did in 2020. A 2018 report reveals that male farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers were nearly twice as likely to die by suicide as the general working population.
Those are scary figures, but in some respects we work in a scary profession. How many other jobs depend so much on factors outside your control, like weather and markets? Add on family business tension and it’s no wonder farmers are often stressed out.
It begs the question: Why aren’t we talking about this? An August 2022 Farm Futures poll shows that a vast majority of Rural Americans “tend to take a negative view of talking about or focusing on mental health and well-being” (see p. 18 for more results).
That has to change, starting now. It’s time to change our mental health mindset, one conversation at a time.
Mental illness is the new 'C' word
It won’t happen overnight. Remember years ago when no one would talk about cancer? If you did, you might have called it the “C” word. We just didn’t want to say it out loud. No one really wants to talk about cancer, until you have to. Then, when it smacks you in the face like it or not, you need to learn everything you can about the disease.
You might say mental health or more accurately mental illness, is this generation’s cancer. The good news? Young people today are much more transparent about their feelings; slowly but surely, the general population is more able to openly talk about these issues.
“People talk more readily about depression, but other scarier forms -- like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder -- are things we’re just now starting to talk and learn about,” says Jeff Winton, a New York agribusiness exec, farmer, and founder at Ruralminds.org, a non-profit dedicated to helping rural Americans with mental health questions.
“People live with these issues,” he says. “It’s going to take time because we’ve kept it behind a curtain for so long. Unfortunately, the clock is ticking and everyday people are dying from suicide or other forms of mental illness.
“We have to act quickly, but also be realistic about when society will accept this as the true illness that it is.”
Farmers overcoming mental health obstacles
In this issue, which you can read for free here, you’ll read how real people overcame obstacles, many of them farmers just like yourself. You’ll learn where to find help when something just doesn’t feel right, either in yourself or when you talk with others. You’ll get ideas that can help any family-owned operation communicate better to reduce every-day anxiety that can result from working in a high-stress business like commercial farming. You’ll read tips on how to incorporate mental health awareness into everyday aspects of your business, so that we get more people taking care of themselves when they’re not too far down a potentially spiraling path.
We hope these stories spark a kitchen conversation or two. And we hope those talks help lift the stigma that still exists around mental illness in farm country.
We couldn’t have brought you these stories without the generous support of this issue’s sponsor, FMC. A big thanks to these good folks who, like us, feel the urgent need to bring this important information to our readers. I’d also like to thank our Farm Futures team as well as contributors Adrienne DeSutter, Kurt Lawton, and Ron Smith.
We care about you and your wellbeing, and we know you feel the same about your family and coworkers. Let’s take care of each other.
About the Author(s)
Executive Editor, Farm Futures
Mike Wilson is executive editor and content manager at FarmFutures.com. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.
“At FarmFutures.com our goal is to get readers the facts and help them analyze complicated issues that impact their day-to-day decision-making,” he says.
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