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Mental health on the farm: Never a wasted day

Holly Spangler combine harvesting corn into cart
AND NOT BUT: Adrienne DeSutter, a farm wife and ag mental health specialist, says we need to recognize the power of “and” instead of “but.” “You can be struggling and it’s going to be OK. Don’t say ‘but’ because that eliminates the first part,” she says. “You can be stressed and blessed.”
Weather, trade wars and pandemics create stress and strain on the farm. Here’s what you can do about it, plus what our farm kids need right now.

Weather, trade wars, pandemics, global food chain disruptions — it all amounts to a lot of uncertainty on the farm these days. That kind of uncertainty helps explain why farming ranks in the top 10 most stressful occupations, and why farmer mental health is a tough place right now.

That’s why Farm Progress editors convened a breakout session on farmer mental health during the recent Farm Progress Virtual Experience.

Because farmers have always dealt with uncertainty in so many areas, it’s easy to think they should be experts at it. But that’s not always the case, as two experts point out.

Adrienne DeSutter, a farm wife from Illinois who’s also an ag mental health specialist, says it’s been interesting hearing nonfarm friends talk about having to stay home for months at a time, deal with financial uncertainties, be forced to work with their spouses, and be really close with all of their family.

“Welcome to the world of agriculture!” she jokes. “As ag families, we’ve already gone through some of these things, and we’ve learned ways to combat it. But we also see the stats and know we’re not that great at managing stress either.”

The lesson from the rest of the world? Slow down, DeSutter says. Everyone else is learning to slow down, to stop expecting perfection and to stop comparing your story to someone else’s. That’s a lesson agriculture can take home right now.  

Get away, if you can. That’s tough with harvest in full swing, but it could be an option afterward, says Jason Medows, a Missouri farmer and host of the podcast Ag State of Mind.

Prior to harvest, he and his wife took a trip out West that took a lot of planning, but they were able to make it happen, even with the farm and four kids. “Pivot and leave and get away from everything for a little while, if you can,” he says.

Safe places to struggle

If you’ve heard these sort of messages a lot lately, DeSutter says that’s on purpose. Both she and Medows are active on social media, and she reports seeing a trend over the past couple of years as people become more likely to open up and share their struggles publicly.

“We’ve created more of a safe place for farm families to reach out,” she says. “Hotline calls are way up, and people are using social media to share more about what’s going on in their lives.”

It’s still not easy, though. “There are a lot of farmers who think talking about their struggles in any way is a weakness. Too many wear stress as a badge of honor,” she explains. Still, she sees good progress, especially as people acknowledge that their families aren’t perfect.

“We think if we open up, it shows weakness, but the opposite is true,” Medows says. “When we open up and share our struggles, it creates some really strong bonds. And it takes a strong person to do that and let people know they’re not alone.

“People are struggling everywhere,” he adds.

Time and again, DeSutter says she’ll hear from someone who says, “I didn’t realize I wasn’t the only one going through this.”

“That’s mind-boggling to me. We have to continue sending the message that you’re not alone,” she adds.

What to do?

Avoid the comparison trap. Sure, your livelihood is on display, and everyone can see your crops and livestock. It’s easy to see who has their crops in and crops out.

“We really do a lot of comparing in ag, so in addition to the uncertainty, there’s this heaviness wondering if we measure up,” DeSutter says. “We have to take control of that and grant ourselves some grace.”

The clichés are true, Medows adds: Do the best you can; understand it’s all you can do; don’t expect perfection; learn from your mistakes.

And those days when something breaks down or nothing goes right and like the old Garth Brooks song says, it feels like a wasted day?

“Nothing is a waste,” DeSutter says. “We’re always working toward something. Is the end goal always just to get stuff done? Redefine your end goal. Sleeping in a couple hours is taking care of yourself. Going to a ballgame is spending time with your children or grandchildren.

“It’s only a waste if your only goal in life is to farm.”

Treat yourself and the people around you like the assets they are, and take care of them, she says. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t let your cup get so full that it overflows and you’re in crisis.

“Mental health means more than suicide. It means more than depression or anxiety. We all have mental health, and we have to make sure we’re taking care of it before we’re at a crisis,” DeSutter says.

And be in tune with what that looks like for you and your loved ones: impatience or frustration, exhaustion, checking out emotionally.

Recognize when those things build. Don’t wait for a crisis to start paying attention.

You can watch this Farm Progress Virtual Experience breakout session online.

Watching out for farm kids

Despite gaining good time at home with family, farm kids are losing a lot in the pandemic, too — like graduations, proms, sports events, FFA conventions and more. How do you take care of them?

DeSutter says to dig deep and find your empathy. Remember how big those events were when you were their age. It’s never “just” a field trip.

“Pay attention to when they’re struggling, and be vigilant, as parents and grandparents. You don’t have to be mushy. Just say, ‘Hey kid, how you doing?’ Then listen,” she says.

“Empathy is not just about putting a silver lining on things and thinking positively. Recognize that some people are really struggling,” she adds. “It’s OK to say, ‘I see you’re really struggling, and I know this is hard for you. I don’t understand because I’m not in your shoes, but if I were, I think it would be really hard.’”

People tend to be fixers, Medows says, but you don’t have to be. “You don’t have to say, ‘It’ll get better.’ You can say that one day, but not when they’re struggling. Acknowledge the struggle.”

Find DeSutter on Twitter @sowhopegrowhope and on Facebook; and Medows on Twitter @AgStateOfMind1 and on Facebook. Look for new podcasts every Monday. 

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