By Kourtney Lehman
Any farmer knows that raising a crop is no simple task. One cannot simply throw seeds in the soil and hope they grow. It is a process. Seeds are carefully sewn, watered and monitored. Should a problem arise, the farmer identifies the issue and responds by introducing the appropriate resources into the plant’s environment. To reap a worthy harvest, a farmer nurtures the crop at every step in its cycle.
We, as agriculturists, are cautious caretakers. And yet, too often we fail to take care of a key commodity on our farms: Ourselves.
In the past few years, the mental health crisis plaguing agriculturists around the world has sparked crucial conversations concerning the accessibility and acceptability of seeking help in rural communities. Whether or not we have found ourselves immersed in these conversations as of yet, it is time to start.
According to a study by Utah State University, 36% of suicides committed in the United States in 2017 were of individuals involved in agriculture. Suicide rates among agriculturalists are found to be 3.5 times higher than the general population (Contemporary Rural Social Work Journal). Male farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers have a significantly higher rate of suicide deaths at 43.2 per 100,000 compared to the average across all other occupations of 27.4 per 100,000 (National Rural Health Association).
It is clear that the life of an agriculturist seems to be more susceptible to the mental health crisis than most occupations. There are a number of contributing factors that have cultivated this problem: Labor shortages, droughts, trade disputes, fluctuating commodity prices, etc. Realistically, the daily life of an agriculturist is demanding and overwhelmed by uncertainty.
Besides that, agriculture is not simply an occupation. It is a way of life. The interests of producers goes beyond production and profits. For many, there is an innate pressure to continue the legacy of generations of family progress.
Yet, despite the innate hardships associated with this industry, the rural communities hosting agricultural families are often predisposed to limited access and availability of mental health care services. According to a policy brief produced by the National Rural Health Association, “As of March 31, 2021, 122 million Americans lived in a mental health professional shortage area. Two-thirds of mental health professional shortage areas are rural.”
As a result of limited accessibility, rural residents, many of which include members of the agriculture industry, are not obtaining treatment as easily nor frequently as individuals living in urban communities.
For a farmer, if a particular crop is known to be more susceptible to struggling to compete with invasive weeds or requiring extra water for growth, the farmer would likely devote more of the necessary resources to assist that crop.
So, why are we not providing that same level of thoughtful care to rural communities?
Study after study has indicated a higher level of susceptibility to mental health conditions amongst rural communities and especially those involved in the agriculture industry. Yet, the majority of mental health professional shortage areas are concentrated in these very communities. Undoubtedly, addressing such issues requires significant costs, legislative assistance, and more. All of which require time and planning. However, let’s remember, during a drought we still expect farmers to produce with limited water and resources. Shouldn’t those expectations for our efforts to care for these communities at least be equal?
Definitely. But, the solution isn’t so simple. Which brings us to the other underlying issue: Acceptability.
I consider myself blessed to have been born and raised in agriculture. From the time I spent my mornings bottle-feeding calves in boots and a diaper to spending summers home from college baling hay, I have had plenty of experiences to understand that there is a unique culture in agriculture. It’s a world where individuals work tirelessly for others. Integrity, character, strength, and independence are a few words that come to mind when I think of the folks in the industry.
I’m grateful to have grown up in such a culture, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the pressure to live up to the caliber of these people at times. So, it comes as no surprise that when I began to be overrun by an overwhelming, ongoing case of anxiety.
As the anxiety grew I pushed it further down thinking I should have the strength to power through. I internalized everything. I felt like admitting my struggles was a sign of defeat, and agriculturists don’t quit. I feared I would lose the acceptance and respect I had been wanting all my life.
I was wrong.
It took a very special person in my life to make me realize that: my dad. Yes, my dad, a lifetime agriculturist, helped me recognize that my field had been overwhelmed with weeds. And, like it or not, I needed to apply some resources if I wanted a healthy harvest.
For me, that meant online counseling and a prescription from my doctor. However, there is no treatment that fixes every problem a crop faces, and the same goes for mental health conditions. Sometimes that means sorting through the available resources to find the right fit for you.
Coast to Forest, a collaboration between the OSU Extension Family and Community Health Program and the OSU Center for Health, offers a variety of resources including Oregon county specific materials. The Farm and Stress Alliance Network is another great source of resources geared specifically toward agriculture. There are many more avenues available.
It takes work to care for a crop, and it takes work to care for ourselves. Thankfully, agriculturists are no stranger to putting in the time required to get the job done.
What we nurture grows. That goes for our crops, and it goes for ourselves. So, let make sure we nurture both.
- Howard, Tasha; Wray, Paige; Had eld, Jacob; Dallin, Joshua; and Ward, Callahan K. (2021) “USU Extension’s Focus on Stress and Mental Health in Rural Agriculture,” Outcomes and Impact Quarterly: Vol. 1 : Iss. 2 , Article 1 DOI: https://doi.org/10.26077/39fc-0234 Available at: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/oiq/vol1/iss2/1
- Blankenship, Abby E.; Nason, Erica E.; Hayes, Olivia; and Bliss, Sebastian (2020) “Mental Health Advocacy: Building an Interdisciplinary Program for Agriculture Professionals,” Contemporary Rural Social Work Journal: Vol. 12 : No. 1 , Article 7.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.murraystate.edu/crsw/vol12/iss1/7
- Eisenreich, R., Pollari, B. S. and C., & MHA. (n.d.). Addressing Higher Risk of Suicide Among Farmers in Rural America. National Rural Health Association Policy Brief. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.ruralhealth.us/NRHA/media/Emerge_NRHA/Advocacy/Policy%20documents/NRHA-Policy-Brief-Increases-in-Suicide-Rates-Among-Farmers-in-Rural-America.pdf