It’s no secret that farmers, ranchers and rural Americans are struggling. They have been dealing with a depressed farm economy for the past seven years, and with the arrival of COVID-19, it adds another layer of adversity.
As the pandemic cripples the U.S., it may trigger a tipping point for farmers already battling the fear of the unknown — weather, market availability, commodity prices, pests, weeds, and now their own health, as well as the health of family members and workers.
Contracting the disease and being sidelined during a crucial time of the year is very concerning, but also because the virus has been known to be more brutal for the older population. For American farmers, the average age is 58.
Bankruptcies, foreclosures, depression and even suicide are some of the tragic consequences of these pressures.
While COVID-19 has idled many professions, farming will and must continue to move forward. The pressure to provide the feed, food, fuel and fiber for Americans and the world is a constant, regardless of the world’s perils.
When it seems as though things are out of control, focus on what you can control, advises Adrienne DeSutter, who is an agriculture wellness advocate with a master’s degree in counseling.
“For example, you may not be able to control who contracts COVID-19, but you can control preventative measures, like limiting employee hours together on the farm, regular hand-washing, and keeping machinery and tools disinfected,” she says. “Having information about the situation is an important way to figure out what you can do, but limiting your exposure to news and social media can also be helpful to minimize extra anxiety.”
According to Jeff Fant, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension’s disaster assessment and recovery agent, when it comes to personal stress levels, what people are now experiencing is no different than the stress one would feel during a natural disaster.
“After 25 years of dealing with high-stress situations myself, I would tell people the single most important thing they can practice is self-care,” says Fant, who previously worked as a senior disaster program manager for the American Red Cross in San Angelo, Texas.
“Self-care is not just physical things like hand-washing and social distancing, but caring for one’s self mentally. Right now, people have a fear of the unknown and anxiety about what could happen to family, friends and themselves.”
While society strives to keep 6 feet between individuals, Fant says, “Don’t quarantine yourself from social contact, just physical contact. Keeping in touch with friends and family benefits everyone and is a crucial part of self-care.”
Fant says anger, anxiety, depression and fear all are normal responses to stressful situations. He shared these suggestions on managing those feelings:
Practice self-care. Find ways to relax and unwind. If there is a hobby you can do at home, make sure you have the supplies and tools that you’ll need in advance.
Use the buddy system. Whether it is a spouse or best friend, have someone you can honestly express your emotions to.
Be a friend. Call and check on others' emotional and physical well-being. If you have the capability, video chat with friends and loved ones who live outside your household.
Keep your mind occupied. Do not let it stagnate on fear, anger or worry.
Maintain your health. Try to eat right, get fresh air, stay hydrated and get some physical activity, even if that is just walking around your block, yard or living room.
Stay informed, but don’t leave the TV on. Receiving nonstop news about COVID-19 on your TV or smartphone will just add to your stress. Do not share information you can’t prove to be true on social media. You do not want to instill unnecessary fear or worry in others.
Don’t worry. There is no point in worrying about things that aren’t true and are unlikely to happen, so make sure the information you are getting is from a legitimate site.
Most farmers can benefit from identifying three things they are grateful for in each day, DeSutter advises. “There are thousands of ways to destress, and since everyone is different, you have to find out what works best for you,” she says.
If stress begins to affect the ability to function on a daily basis, it may be time to seek professional help. Visiting with your primary care doctor is a great place to start, DeSutter says, or you can see a mental health professional (such as a social worker or psychologist) without being referred by a doctor.
“Therapy is beneficial for anyone who wants to lead a better life, whether that's due to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety, or just a desire to work through any issue you may be facing,” DeSutter says. “Talking about what you're thinking and feeling is one of the best ways to cope with any stress, whether that's with a therapist or an empathetic friend.”
Since 2017, Michigan State University Extension, as well as other Extension services across the U.S., has been offering mental health first aid training to both its own staff and external organizations to help recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems.
Telehealth (a virtual doctor or therapy visit) is becoming more widely available during this pandemic, as many states have temporarily loosened regulations to allow more providers the capability to offer these services.
“People who need help the most are often least likely to ask for it, and we can save lives if we continue to stay vigilant for signs of crisis in ourselves and others,” DeSutter adds.
If the situation is potentially life-threatening, get immediate emergency assistance by dialing 911.
Suicide prevention resources
Here are some numbers to call for assistance:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Farm Aid Hotline, 800-FARM-AID (327-6243), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT Monday-Friday
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255), 24 hours
- 211, a comprehensive hotline that connects callers with local resources