Farming is stressful. Work days that begin before dawn and end long after dark. Equipment breakdowns. Crop yields lessened by adverse weather. Sick livestock. Low commodity prices.
“It’s no wonder that farming ranks in the top ten most stressful occupations in America,” Dr. Sean Brotherson, a family science specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension, said.
Recognizing that Georgia farmers and their rural communities are facing stress levels comparable to those of the farm crisis in the early 1980s, several University of Georgia colleges teamed up to hold a Rural Stress Summit in Atlanta in December. The event, sponsored by the UGA College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, College of Family & Consumer Sciences and School of Social Work, featured rural stress experts from across the U.S.
“Everyone knows what it’s like to have stress, anxiety and to be burned out. People in rural areas suffer just like those in metro areas. They just may not know where to seek help for a behavioral health issue,” CAES Dean & Director Dr. Sam Pardue said.
Multiple summit speakers acknowledged that addressing rural stress is complicated because farming is more rooted in heritage and emotions than most jobs.
“For families who have chosen farming it is more than a means of making money. It is a generational way of life,” Brotherson said. “When it comes to the impact of a farming economic crisis on families and communities, it is about more than making money. It is about the continuance of a generational way of life rooted in history.”
• Emotional signs: depression, anger/blame, anxiety, loss of spirit, loss of humor
• Behavioral signs: irritability, acting out, withdrawal, heavy drinking or violence
• Cognitive signs: memory loss, lack of concentration, indecisiveness
Causes & risks of stress
Stress usually stems from factors perceived as being beyond our control. For farmers, this may include weather, tariffs and the general economy.
“No matter how hard you work, you can’t guarantee that you’re going to have a positive outcome and that feeling of helplessness can really be associated with depression and with risk for suicide,” said Anna Scheyett, dean of the UGA School of Social Work.
Some farmers are able to cope with the stress of farming until the loss of a loved one or a relationship ends.
“In rural communities, people are obviously more isolated. That means the relationships that farmers do have, they lean on them and count on them more,” Scheyett said. “So, any disruption in their relationship, breakup with a family member, somebody passing in the family is going to put them at greater risk.”
Ignoring emotions caused by stress factors can eventually take its toll on a farmer’s physical and emotional health.
“In general, you’re looking for changes in behavior. People who stop eating, increase drinking, whose sleep gets disrupted, who isolate, who don’t want to go to church anymore, don’t want to do the things they used to do anymore,” Scheyett said.
Untreated stress can lead to depression or suicide. The suicide rate among farmers is the third highest of any vocational group, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
“Some high-end warning signs that people may not think about include things like people starting to show loved ones where they keep all their important papers, wanting to give things away, wanting to make sure they know what's going on with insurance and such," Scheyett said.
On May 15 UGA released the results of a study Scheyett led in collaboration with epidemiologists from the Georgia Department of Public Health. The study, “Characteristics & Contextual Stressors in Farmer and Agricultural Worker Suicides in Georgia from 2008-2015” looked at 106 suicides among farmers and ag workers that occurred in Georgia from 2008 to 2015 as reported in the Georgia Violent Death Reporting System.
Relationship difficulties/endings, health problems and financial problems were most commonly associated with farmer suicides, the study found. Farmers who died by suicide were predominantly white men more than 50 years old, statistics that reflect the demographics of the majority of Georgia’s farmers.
The study suggested that rural health care providers who treat farmers and farm workers experiencing illness, pain or disability should be trained in self-harm risk detection and in giving referrals for counseling. Scheyett and the other researchers also recommend that service providers who may be aware of relationship problems or loss farmers are experiencing – clergy, funeral home directors or lawyers – could also be trained to encourage their clients to seek counseling.
• Talk with someone you trust about your feelings.
• Eat healthy.
• Exercise regularly.
• Avoid using drugs or alcohol.
• Get enough “good” sleep. Don’t take electronics to bed. Avoid drinking caffeine/alcohol at least an hour before bed.
• Reach out to family/friends for support. Ask for what you want/need from people likely to give it.
• Choose to be hopeful. Focus on the good in your life.
• Find professional support if feelings of stress continue & affect daily activities.
Stress management is farm management
Farmers wouldn’t let a sick cow go without veterinary care or leave a field infested with insects or weeds unsprayed. But they’re liable to ignore their own health, especially emotional health issues.
“Your health is your most important asset as a farmer, rancher or agricultural worker,” said Brotherson. “Farmer and farmworker health and safety is the most important priority in managing any farm or ranch operation.”
While farmers are usually among the first to offer others help, they often can’t ask for it for themselves, Brotherson said. A willingness to seek help is crucial as is the development of a social support system to help not only an individual but a family navigate stressful situations.
A survey Brotherson took of farmers indicates they are most likely to seek social support from: 1) spouses, 2) friends, 3) children, 4) church, 5) parents, 6) relatives or lenders, 7) neighbors, 8) farm organizations, 9) community and 10) social services.
“While it’s really hard to talk about, I think talking about it is important and saying to somebody that you love, ‘I love you. I care about you. I’m seeing these differences. I’d like to take you to talk to someone,’ ” Scheyett said. “Maybe it’s somebody that person trusts, maybe it’s a clergyman the person feels good about and that you know understands these issues, maybe it’s a primary care provider.”
If you have a loved one, friend or neighbor exhibiting signs of stress, you should do something, Ted Matthews, director of Minnesota Rural Mental Health, said.
During his more than 30 years of counseling in rural areas, Matthews has partnered with sheriff’s departments, Extension agents and social services to help farmers and rural residents struggling with stress issues.
“If they go to church and they haven’t gone to church for three weeks in a row, talk to the minister and say ‘What’s going on with Bob or Joan? They haven’t been to church in three weeks’,” Matthews said.
A sincere, loving inquiry toward someone exhibiting signs of emotional stress might prevent them taking desperate action. When it comes to stress, Matthews said women are more likely to want to talk while men tend to pull away.
For every suicide, there are 25 attempts, Matthews said. More women attempt suicide than men, but men are more successful.
It's OK to seek help
South Georgia farmers are still recovering from Hurricane Michael. Realizing the stress the storm would cause rural Georgia, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) secured funding last fall to implement the Georgia Recovery Project (GRP).
This project provides crisis counselors to offer a listening ear for disaster survivors to discuss how they’ve been affected by the storm. If farmers need more than a listening ear, GRP counselors can provide referrals to resources that can provide the help needed. Individual and group crisis counseling is available. All services are free and confidential.
“The Georgia Recovery Project has a network of people who can offer varying degrees of help. Some of our team members are counselors. Some are retired pastors, and some are certified peer specialists, who have been in the shoes of those seeking help,” said Jennifer Dunn, a regional services administrator for the DBHDD Region 4. The GRP, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will operate through Oct. 11. The program is available to residents in counties that received a presidential disaster declaration for individual assistance.
Residents of Baker, Calhoun, Clay, Dougherty, Early, Lee, Miller, Randolph, Terrell and Worth counties should call Aspire Behavioral Health at 229-430-6037 to be connected with a GRP counselor.
Residents of Decatur, Grady, Mitchell, Seminole and Thomas counties should call the Georgia Pines Community Service Board at 229-977-6134 to access GRP support.
Georgians experiencing emotional distress related to a natural disaster who live in counties outside of the GRP coverage area can seek crisis counseling through the Disaster Distress Helpline provided by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services at 1-800-985- 5990. The hotline is operational 24 hours, seven days a week.
“If someone has breath in their lungs, then there’s hope. We don’t want people to be without hope,” Dunn said.
All Georgians dealing with emotional issues may seek help through the Georgia Crisis & Access Line at 1-800- 715-4225 24 hours, seven days a week. This hotline offers crisis services for those considering suicide and connects Georgians with services to help with emotional health or substance abuse issues.
Help on the Line
• Georgia Recovery Project
For Southwest Ga. residents experiencing stress from Hurricane Michael
• Disaster Distress Helpline
For anyone experiencing stress due to a natural disaster
• Georgia Crisis & Access Line
Provides suicide prevention/ counseling & access to emotional health & substance abuse services
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
24-hour crisis intervention
Special thanks to GFB staff members Katie Duvall & John Holcomb & UGA CAES Public Relations Coordinator Sharon Dowdy for contributing information to this article.