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TALKING HELPS: Sharing your thoughts when you’re stressed rather than hiding them leads to relief, experts say.

Talking about mental health a step in right direction

More improvements in dealing with farm-related stress are needed, but conditions aren’t as dire as in the 1980s.

The first Healing in the Heartland symposium was a big step toward recognizing mental health for farmers is critical. Put together by the current class of the Indiana Agricultural Leadership Program/AgriInstitute, it connected participants to Michael R. Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer based in Harlan, Iowa.

Rosmann related information about a Swedish study in the early 2000s involving mental health of people who worked in livestock operations. The health of workers was correlated with the health of the herd. If the workers presented as troubled, the operation had a higher frequency of visits from veterinarians. As the workers’ mental health improved, vet visits went down, and the overall health of the animals improved.

He explained that farmers typically take complete ownership of their livestock operations, even with elements out of their control. Doing so can lead to being vulnerable to despair, with feelings of failure or inadequacy.

“Weather, government policies and consumer preferences are factors that cannot be predicted or controlled, but behavior can be controlled, and by doing so, it allows for optimal livestock health, crop production and sound decision-making,” Rosmann said.

He noted that due to high stress levels, suicide remains a perplexing problem among agricultural producers. Based on his information, 48% of rural residents revealed they’re experiencing more mental health challenges than a year ago.

Rosmann believes there are still inadequate resources for mental health assistance in rural areas, especially in understanding unique challenges farmers face. But some improvements are in sight.

Reason for optimism

Despite the worst economic recession in agriculture since the 1980s, with major parts of U.S. agriculture being in the fifth year of economic recession — along with uncertainties about politics, tariffs and loosening or tightening of regulations — Rosmann sees some optimism for the ag industry. The rates of bankruptcy, suicide and farm loss aren’t nearly as great as during the 1980s.

He believes one contributing factor is that the effort of farmers and lenders seeking solutions have become collegial rather than adversarial. Plus, there are better resources today to assist farmers. These include dispute mediation, help lines, ag safety and health programs, and mental health services better suited to famers and rural residents.

However, services are more readily available in some places than others. For example, according to Missouri Ruralist, a sister publication to Indiana Prairie Farmer, farmers in Missouri can access services Hoosiers don’t have. Sources at the Indiana State Department of Agriculture say ISDA leaders continue looking for more ways to help farmers in stressful situations.

Overall, Rosmann said farmers understand mental health better than ever before, and view their behavior as something they can and should manage. They also are more likely to reach out for help, and are more willing to keep an eye on family and neighbors in need of mental health assistance than in the past.

While Rosmann believes there’s a long way to go, there are positive changes being made. The Healing in the Heartland symposium was a step in the right direction. It was the first public forum in central Indiana to discuss these important issues related to those in agriculture.

McClain writes from Greenwood, Ind. Tom J. Bechman contributed to this story.

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