Not only is behavioral health an important component to overall wellbeing, but a producer’s behavioral health also affects the success of the farming operation.
"Behavioral wellbeing is key to healthy farming and ranching," said Mike Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer in Iowa.
During a webinar conducted by Mississippi State University Extension, Rosmann answered questions on how stress affects farmers and ways to get help in rural America.
Is there a correlation between farm size and stress challenges experienced by farmers?
The relationship between farm stress and size shows that the people who fall somewhere in the middle of the large farming operations and the smaller operations are feeling the most stress.
The large operations tend to have a different mindset. They look at agriculture more like a business and not as a way of life, so that changes how invested they are emotionally in the farming enterprise. Those who view farming as a way of life work harder to hang on to their operation. It's as if the loss of the family farm says that they have let down their ancestors who have worked to acquire the farming resources. Also, the loss of the farm means eliminating the possibility of their successors continuing in the operation. The amount of stress on a farmer has to do with the way we look at farming more than the size of the operation.
Are farmers more likely to seek help than in the past?
How farmers and their families seek help has changed over the years, which has made it easier to seek assistance for those with behavioral health concerns. There are much better resources today than we had in the 1980s, thanks partly to the advances by the agricultural businesses and Extension services. Farmers understand behavioral health much better too.
In April of 2019, the American Farm Bureau polled 2,004 rural residents in our country, 81 of whom were farmers. They asked the farmers if mental health is a major problem for them or their workers. Thirty percent said yes, and 48% of rural residents said they are experiencing more mental health challenges than a year ago. Younger persons are feeling the most vulnerable, which also seems to be the case now with agricultural stress.
Thirty-one percent of rural residents had sought assistance for their behavioral health the year before. Twenty-one percent of farmers did as well, but two out of every three respondents said they did know where to seek mental health assistance and they know the warning signs of a mental health condition. Eighty-two percent said that mental health is important to them and their family. This is very unlike polls taken in the 1980s.
Do you believe telehealth appointments make it easier to access providers, and does it eliminate a barrier to accessing healthcare for behavioral health concerns in the future?
The data shows so far that telehealth works best when you have at least one counseling visit face to face, so it may be necessary for the counselor or the provider, like a farm coach or an Extension service consultant, to go out to the farm. This helps to build trust and understanding, and it allows the provider of services to see what is going on in the farming operation. Are the buildings kept up? Is the machinery under covers or is it rusting? Are the fences in good condition? Are the livestock well maintained?
Those are important factors for the provider to understand to know how to best help the individual. Optimally, one visit or more to the farming operation improves the follow-up care that can be given through telehealth. It's clear now that telehealth is a necessary method of reaching farmers, especially during this time of COVID-19. As a rule, telehealth is not quite as good as in-person counseling, but when accompanied by an initial face-to-face connection, then it works well.
What resources are available to our veteran farmers in America?
First off, the number of people who join the military are disproportionately from rural and farming areas. Even though farmers make up 17% of the total population of the U.S., 44% of all people in the military originate from rural and farming backgrounds. The military likes to have farm men and women serving in military capacities because they are adaptable and can tolerate a lot of uncertainty. They're also hard-working and comfortable being outdoors. These characteristics, as well as others, make farmers good soldiers.
About 33% of all returning veterans live in a rural area, and many of these people want to farm. Something is healing about farming; farming is another way to serve the public. We are producing essentials in the form of food, fiber, and even renewable energy. There is something about farming that is healthy for military veterans.
Unfortunately, we find that when they return home to the farm after completing their military careers there are many struggles associated with behavioral health such as depression and anxiety. It's for that reason that the VA has many provisions to assist veterans, entering the agricultural operation. There is even a whole program called Farmer Veteran Coalition, which offers resources for our veterans.
What are some actions that Extension services, as well as the general community, can take to improve behavioral health amongst agriculture producers and rural residents?
Community education meetings covering behavioral health are important. Agriculture meetings, especially during the winter months when most farmers are not as active, can provide growers training as well as resources. We need to conduct educational training about the importance of behavioral health and how it is essential to good production.
It’s also important to have licensed behavioral health therapists who are familiar with agriculture and farming. There are Extension experts who have master's degrees or Ph.D.'s in behavioral health who can offer such assistance. There's a growing recognition that everybody needs education about managing our behavioral wellbeing.
For further resources, visit https://www.farmaid.org/, http://extension.msstate.edu/health/the-promise-initiative/mental-health-first-aid, https://learning.agrisafe.org/mental-health, https://farmvetco.org/, and https://www.psychologytoday.com/us.