A farmer from Fair Oaks, Ind., Marv Hamstra, sat in his shop on a fall day and stared out at his fields. In a good year, he’d be pulling in the crop. But it wasn’t a good year. Between late planting and uncertainty of market prices, harvest was delayed. He sat waiting, planning what he could and hoping the season wouldn’t create any more problems.
“Weather, financial stress, market stress, market decisions and the vulnerability of ups and downs — these all take a toll,” Hamstra says.
Farming is a tough business. With the unpredictability of weather and the economy, farmers must expect the unexpected, and for many, this often leads to stress, emotional suffering and uncertainty of where to find help.
Bill Field, director of the Purdue University Agricultural Safety and Health program, has worked with farmers who have experienced disabling injuries for over 40 years.
“Nothing generates stress in a person’s life like losing an arm or a leg,” Field says. He is often a witness to the impact of farm-related injuries or disabilities that can make farming more difficult. Field also sees the physical stressors of farming and how that affects mental health.
A recent poll by the American Farm Bureau Federation reports that most farmers say mental health is important to them and their families, but there are obstacles to seeking help. They include concerns about cost and the stigma that some may feel when reaching out for help.
Mental health programs
To combat these obstacles, Purdue Extension adapted two programs created by Michigan State University for Indiana: Communicating With Farmers Under Stress and Weathering the Storm in Agriculture. These programs are aimed to provide more resources for farmers and their families who are facing mental health challenges. They teach participants how to recognize signs of stress in others and themselves.
“Even though they might not ask for help, some farmers may need help with this, and we can help them through it. And as Extension, our job is to help our clientele,” says Bryan Overstreet, Extension ag educator in Jasper County. He points out that Purdue Extension saw a need to aid in mental health outreach after families were reaching out with concerns about farmers under stress.
Purdue sent 11 Extension educators to the Farm Stress Management workshop through MSU Extension in January. These individuals comprise the Purdue Extension Farm Stress Team and implement programs across the state.
Communicating With Farmers Under Stress is aimed at agricultural professionals who interact with farmers. Ag lenders, veterinarians, inspectors and more are trained to recognize when farmers don’t seem like themselves. They’re also taught how to work with farmers under stress.
Weathering the Storm in Agriculture helps farmers and their families understand the signs and symptoms of stress and pinpoint resources available to help maintain their mental health.
While the programs are met with success, talking about mental health isn’t easy, even for facilitators.
“It’s a hard subject to talk about, and some don’t want to admit it, and some know we need to talk about it,” Overstreet says.
During one program, Overstreet looked up and saw a friend who had recently been through a family tragedy. “You look out there, and it’s like, OK, we’re talking about this, and it could be hitting pretty hard — you don’t know,” he explains.
One of the biggest challenges is getting farmers to attend these mental health programs. Societal stigma still lingers with talking about mental health. “Farmers tend to have an agrarian philosophy that they can do it, and they’re independent, and they can handle it themselves. But sometimes they might need help,” Overstreet says.
Hamstra agrees that farmers are leery of asking for help when faced with stress. “We usually think it’s always going to get better, and it’s always going to go OK,” Hamstra says.
Yet, it’s a struggle for everyone, not just farmers, to reach out for help, Field says. Sometimes people don’t know where to turn and feel embarrassed or awkward.
Erasing the stigma and connecting people with one another are hopes for Purdue Extension’s programs. The Weathering the Storm in Agriculture program takes place within other training and certification programs so that resources and information can reach farmers. The Communicating With Farmers Under Stress program is often hosted as administrative or leadership training for agricultural businesses or organizations. All the while, relationships are developed.
“For instance, if I know Farmer Bob is under stress, and I know someone he can talk to, there’s a mutual connection,” Overstreet says.
Trust and relationships play a huge role in support and encouragement with the mental health stressors farmers are facing. “The natural ways to get people to reach out are with those that they trust and know. When you’re in a dark time, what you want are people — people who care about you,” Field says.
With the couple of dozen programs delivered so far, responses have been positive. Impacts of the programs are measured by survey responses. One hundred percent of attendees indicated increased awareness to impacts of stress on the body, and 99% indicated increased awareness of where to go for help. Some 98% indicated increased confidence in communicating with people under stress, and 97% indicated increased understanding of warning signs of suicide. The largest immeasurable takeaways are having more confidence when talking about stress and understanding that it’s all right to ask for help.
“Most understand they are all struggling with something, whether they want to admit it or not,” Overstreet says. “It’s OK to talk about it. No one has to try to do it all on their own.”
Field says there are tremendous resources available, but a lot depends on the farmer. “The big question is, are they open to being helped? Are they open to talking? Are they open to conveying their needs to other people?” Field says.
Both Extension programs continue to be implemented. To find out program availability and resources in your area, contact your local Extension office. Read about the various symptoms of stress in this related story.
Groen is a senior in ag communication at Purdue University. She writes from West Lafayette, Ind.